A police officer has never asked me to step out of my car ...
That is a truth for me that, in 31 years as a white American male, I’ve never thought twice about until now. It has just always been another part of my life that was unquestionably … normal. Normal because I grew up in a nice small southern town with two loving parents and a golden retriever. Normal because for my entire life, I’ve gotten everything I ever wanted.
It wasn’t until my third year of dental school that I realized this was not an experience shared by persons of color. I was having a conversation with one of my closest friends in my class, and he was explaining what it was like to live in our state as a black man.
“There are parts of this state where, if I was driving through at night and low on gas, I’d just keep driving, man. There’s no way I’d pull over at a gas station. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
But I didn’t.
I knew what he was implying, but I could never be able to fully understand what he was actually saying. How could I? Not only had I never heard anyone say that to me before, I had never had a black friend. In fact, I didn’t know of a single minority student in my county, an area known as “The Mountain.” It has been many years since my last visit, but I can still remember the brief glimpses of front yard confederate flags flying in the distance on the morning drives to my high school. I can still feel the anxiety of trying not to say the wrong thing to some of my classmates, knowing that they likely had family members who were involved with an active extremist group in the community.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my dental school friend and what he said to me that day. I thought about him for 10 disturbing minutes as I watched George Floyd have his life taken from him for nothing more than the color of his skin. I thought about him as I watched news coverage on the riots and protests in the downtown area of the city I now call home, thousands of miles away from The Mountain.
I thought about him this past Saturday, as I stood shoulder to shoulder in the street with thousands of other healthcare professionals. Standing, shouting, their fists raised in the air. A sea of white coats and scrubs, all there to show our black community that we see them, we love them, and we will stand beside them and see this through. I felt encouraged. It was one of those moments that, even as you experience it, you can feel its significance. I’ve seen and heard so many uplifting stories happening all around our country. Voices are being heard. So many glimpses of love and hope and unity, and as we move into the tenth day of nationwide protests, the momentum continues on.
But I’ve also seen discouragement. I’ve seen attacks on the authenticity of others.
“You’re just posting this for attention.”
“Where were you before it was trending?”
I don’t support the name calling. I’m not here to condemn the efforts of others. I don’t support blasting the message to the world that unless people are doing exactly what you’re doing, then they are part of the problem.
We need to give people a chance. Instead of calling friends out on an Instagram story, let’s reach out to them directly and have an honest, respectful conversation. Instead of engaging in a Facebook battle, let’s speak candidly to those we care about and express how we feel.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met anyone who changed their opinion after a Facebook comment war with a stranger. Real change starts in your heart, and it happens from delicate, open conversations with people that you care about and that you respect. That’s why it’s so important for every one of us to do our part, spread the message, and show our support.
So how do we do that exactly?
The truth in all of this is that there’s a unique way that each of us can support the black community and the anti-racism movement. You can show your support by ___________.
People keep trying to fill that blank for others. Claiming that if your blank doesn’t match theirs, then you have failed the test, some even arguing that you’re supporting the other side. But the truth is that ultimately the blank is up to you, and that really the only wrong answer . . . is for you to leave it blank.
My hope is that everyone will join this movement and fill the blank with whatever your strength is. Whether it’s donating money, hitting the streets in protest, or texting a black friend to check up on them. Whether it’s supporting black businesses, spreading messages to your social community, or having an honest conversation with a family member about the truths of systemic racism.
Whatever it is, just do something.
Your background shouldn’t matter. Where you came from shouldn’t matter. Whether you’re from the Mountain or here in Seattle, what matters is that you show up and actually take part in this movement. It will take every last one of us doing what we do best in order to have the greatest impact and finally eliminate the disease of racism once and for all.
This article originally appeared June 15 in the ADA New Dentist Now, newdentistblog.ada.org.
Dr. Joe Vaughn is a general dentist who graduated from the University of Alabama and currently practices in Seattle. He works both as an associate in a private practice as well as in a public health clinic. Dr. Vaughn currently serves in roles with both the Seattle King County Dental Society and the Washington State Dental Association.