Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, FGDP(UK) Vice Dean Onkar Dhanoya shares experiences from his education and career as an Asian dentist, and discusses actions the profession can take to address racial inequality in general dental practice.
I have been inspired to write this blog post by a recent article on dentistry.co.uk by Gaby Bissett, Black Lives Matter – experiences from the dental profession.
Olumide Ojo shared his experiences of being a black dental colleague. Both of us went to Newcastle Dental School. I graduated in 1985 and have taught there since 1996. Olumide was one of the students on my clinical teaching sessions and I remember him well as a very talented student. Yewande Oduwole, who also contributed to the article, was presented with the inaugural Nik Pandya Dental Student of the Year award by the FGDP in March 2020 just before the lockdown began. I am Vice Dean of FGDP and she is a very deserving recipient. I would like to thank my three black colleagues for sharing their experiences and giving me the impetus to share mine.
The article was written against the backdrop of the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests that have gained momentum around the world. The way this man was killed and the subsequent protests have been very upsetting. I am not Black and do not share all the experiences of black people in our profession but I noted with sadness and concern that after all these years some of the experiences recounted by these younger colleagues mirrored my own. I want to offer my support.
The Black Lives Matter movement and the protests in the USA has made me reflect on my experiences in the UK – perhaps in a way I have not done before. Growing up in England in the 1970s meant that you received racist slurs, threats of violence and even suffered actual violence. I had mostly put those times out of my head but the recent events have been an unpleasant reminder. I am not going to write about that but am confining this blog to my experiences in my education and in my career.
I won a place to attend a Grammar school in Slough in the 1970s. I was the only Asian in my class – there was only one other pupil of colour in my year group. All of the teachers were white. When I decided to apply for dentistry I was actively discouraged because the teacher thought I was being too ambitious. In fact she insisted on arranging for me to attend for some work experience that was not with a dentist. Black pupils need to be encouraged to consider dentistry as a career and to have black role models they can aspire to emulate. This kind of careers guidance needs to start early in their education if black pupils are going to be able to make successful university applications.
Ignoring my teacher’s advice, I applied, achieved my grades and went to Newcastle Dental School. There were a handful of Asian dental students in my year, no black students and one Asian lecturer in the school. For some reason these numbers haven’t changed significantly in the last 30 years at Newcastle and are very different from other Universities where Asian students and Asian lecturers are represented in much larger numbers .
Despite being a capable student and having good references I was not successful in my job applications after qualifying. The only job I was offered was by an Asian Principal – Shabir Hussain who had a practice about 40 miles away. Shabir took me under his wing and gave me lots of opportunities to learn. He also had a black consultant anaesthetist who worked at the practice. The practice was in a North Eastern town where the majority of the population is white – but Shabir gave us a chance.
When I opened my own practice, Shabir was a great source of advice and guidance. He was an excellent mentor and has remained a friend ever since. This demonstrates the importance of having a good mentor and being given an opportunity; it is vital to have this support in the formative years of your career.
When a practice owner is building a team, he or she will want the team to gel and may make an assumption that the person of colour may not “fit in”. When the practice is in an area where the population is not diverse, the practice owner might assume that patients may not respond well to a person of colour. Those reasons for not giving a person a job are discriminatory and illegal and there is no justification for it. I hope Principals will not overlook a good candidate for these reasons. It makes good business sense to attract the most talented and skilled team. I hope that candidates will challenge the decision if they think the reason they have not been appointed is discriminatory.
Being a Principal means you are less exposed to overt racism in the workplace. Any experience I have had of what I have perceived as unfair treatment in my career after becoming a Principal has been in my dealings with external organisations and stakeholders.
There have been occasions when I have not been appointed for roles I have applied for and I could not understand why. The person appointed was white and did not have a CV that listed as much experience and qualifications as mine. When I was younger I felt that I could not challenge these decisions, that it might impact my career. I tried to think of every reason why I might not have been successful. When I asked for feedback, it did not bear scrutiny. Despite this I did not want to conclude that the decision might have been racially motivated; consciously or subconsciously.
I also did not want anyone to think I was playing the “race card” that I was blaming my short-comings on racial prejudice. I think a lot of people of colour are afraid of this allegation, I certainly was. This fear can stop you from challenging a situation and it can make you doubt yourself.
Challenging a situation that you might perceive to be racist is difficult and I have had to do so. It was a very difficult experience but with hindsight I am pleased I did it. I hope that the dental community; Asian, White and Black will stand together and be anti racist.
There are important roles in strategy, governance and education in dentistry that it is important that black people are encouraged to contribute to e.g. The LDC, The GDC, Undergraduate and Postgraduate education, The BDA. Black people and people of colour should be encouraged to be part of these stakeholders. The leadership in these organisations should be looking at what they can do to encourage black colleagues to be represented and included. It can be daunting to apply to be part of an organisation where you might be the only person of your colour.
Asian colleagues have encouraged me to apply for posts in organisations where I have wanted to contribute and they have supported my applications. They were role models and this is again mentorship in action. Black colleagues need to have black role models and it is important that this happens. In the interim we can all help them get there.
White colleagues have also supported me throughout my career and I particularly want to mention the support I have received from Ian Mills who is Dean of the FGDP. He is determined to ensure that the board of FGDP is a very inclusive forum and he genuinely values diversity. It is this kind of leadership that we need to make sure that dentistry provides equal opportunities for us all.
The term “Bame” can be too wide to describe the issue of racism and the experience of the different groups in the definition. Asians are in a different position to black people in terms of their access to dental schools and the dental profession. Black people are far less represented and we all need to work together to address that.
I have been lucky to have enjoyed a very rewarding career in dentistry and most of my experiences with colleagues and patients have been positive. In my various roles I want to support black colleagues in their careers and to provide them with the mentorship and guidance from which I have benefitted. Please feel free to contact me at email@example.com or Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Onkar was among those sharing their experiences of life as an ethnic minority dental professional in the UK in our recent webinar, Why Colour is the Elephant in the Room. Available free of charge online, FGDP(UK) encourages all dental professionals to view it as part of their continuing professional development.
Onkar also chairs the Faculty's new task group on equality, and FGDP(UK) has published this statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-racism.
Read more posts at www.fgdp.org.uk/deans-blog.