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A call to action: The recurring wrinkle in time

Dr. Hamlin: 'When I learned about Ahmaud Arbery I thought, “That could have been me.”'

July 07, 2020

By Zaneta Hamlin, DDS

In the venn diagram of where Black people and dentists intersect you will find me. The first thing you may notice about me is that I am a Black woman with locks; not a well-rounded, caring, well-educated, accomplished doctor.
Photo of Dr. Zamlin
Dr. Hamlin

I have participated in several Missions of Mercy in the DC, Maryland, Virginia area, volunteer regularly at a local clinic, hold several leadership positions in and outside of dentistry, and as of July I will be a Fellow of the Academy of General Dentistry. Though I am credentialed, experienced, and wear a white coat, I have had patients look up at me and ask “When is the doctor coming?”

Despite my degrees, certifications and awards I have been pulled over by a police officer, with my children in the car, for no reason other than to be asked whose car I am driving. I have had a security guard follow me around in a luxury boutique. Ironically, this happened after a dental business meeting so I was not dressed casually, though my attire should not have made a difference.

Earlier in my career a lot of people, including fellow dentists, assumed I was not the clinician. I remember going to the registration tables at dental conferences and community service events only to be asked which doctor I was attending with or who I was assisting. When I would attend dental meetings with my husband, who is white, the typical assumption was that he was the dentist. Aside from the fact that he initially didn't enjoy attending dental meetings, the confusion as to who the doctor actually was did not make it any easier. This happened enough to make him feel uncomfortable. Why is it so hard to believe that I am a doctor? Does it bother me? It used to. I have stowed away so many embarrassed looks over the years, which has made me more confident and determined to make sure clinicians like me are seen and brought to the forefront. We are not such an oddity.

Recently, I have picked up running while the gyms have been closed during quarantine. When I learned about Ahmaud Arbery I thought, “That could have been me.” Needless to say I stopped running or going for walks alone. I hate to say it, but I now only feel comfortable going out with my husband. There is an ongoing pandemic and a fire outside that won't go out without acknowledgement and change.

Black Lives Matter. Yes, colleagues, all races matter too; we see you. However, your lighter skin affords you more safety and privilege, which I have come to understand is uncomfortable for many of you to accept or discuss. You are not the one being stripped of opportunities for which you are qualified, harassed daily, negatively judged, threatened, or killed just because of the color of your skin. This is not political by any means; it's purely a stance on equality and how we treat one another. There is no point in discussing your house since your house is not on fire. Right now, we, Black people and our allies, are trying to put out the fire that is occurring in our homes.

For my white doctor friends who may not understand these experiences, please take a moment, sit for a minute, and put yourself in the shoes of your Black colleagues. We're all dentists here. What does it feel like? Do you feel sad, hurt, scared? Now imagine your colleagues not having your back and your dental associations ignoring what's affecting you, a dues-paying member.

How do you feel? What do you do?

This is a call to action. What can you do? First acknowledge that there is a problem. Second, we all know what assumptions do, so stop making them. Welcome more diverse clinicians to the table, diversify leadership, diversify your circle. If your state dental association does not have a diversity and inclusion committee then be the change you want to see. This will help develop and repair relationships with existing minority dental associations and make everyone feel like they can not only attend the party but dance as well (cheers to my 2019 ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership classmates). If your organizations give you lip service describing how inclusive they are, but this is not reflected in their organizational body, then advocate for that change. Let that change happen so we can move towards a future that is more peaceful and inclusive. Do not let any of these painful experiences or senseless murders happen to your Black friend or Black  colleague before you start to care.

For my Black and brown colleagues you must take a seat at the table. Change will only occur if you sit at the table. It is not OK to sit back and expect someone to hand you this change without you doing any kind of work and making sure your presence is known. You exist and deserve to be on those committees, on those boards, and in that room.

Together we can achieve a united future.

Dr. Zaneta Hamlin is a general dentist at The Foleck Center in Norfolk, Virginia. She graduated from Howard University College of Dentistry in 2012, her father's alma mater. Her affiliations include membership in the Academy of Laser Dentistry, American Dental Association, Pi Pi Chapter of Omicron Kappa Upsilon (National Dental Honor Society), and Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. In 2017, she was recognized by the Virginia Dental Association in the Virginia Dental Journal as one of the 40 under 40 Dentists. Dr. Hamlin is the president-elect of the Tidewater Dental Association, membership chair of the Virginia Dental Association, an external affiliate instructor in the Department of Oral Health Promotion and Community Outreach at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry, and a regular volunteer at the Chesapeake Care Clinic. She is also the Distressed and Displaced Africa Project coordinator and North American main liaison officer. Dr. Hamlin enjoys wine, traveling with friends, learning new things, and spending time with her husband and two daughters.


Editor's note: Views expressed in the post is the personal opinion of the author and is not intended to reflect the views, positions or policies of the ADA or the New Dentist Committee