At Hallmark Orthodontics we recognize the need for our society to do better and be better in the fight for racial equality.  We talked with Kelton Stewart, program chair at the Indiana University Department of Orthodontics about some of his experiences as well as ways in which we can promote change.  Read below!

Give me a little brief synopsis of your back ground (where you are from, family, education, etc)

 I’m originally from Arlington, TX. My father is a civil engineer and works for a private firm in the Dallas area. My mother serves as Executive Director Systematic Advocacy within the Taxpayer Advocate Service, a branch of the IRS. I have two sisters: my older sister has a PhD in Literature and my younger sister is an optometrist, both reside in the DFW area.

a.       I completed college at Baylor University in Waco, TX. I received my DDS, Orthodontic Certificate, and Masters in Health Professions Education at Baylor College of Dentistry.

b.       I’ve been on faculty at IU since 2008.

 In your own life, has racial inequality been a significant burden you have felt you had had to overcome?  Are there any examples you would be willing to share?

Yes, I have dealt with racial inequality during my entire life.

a.       Through most of my educational journey, I was only one of a handful of African-American students in my classes. I have always felt pressure to demonstrate that I was as good as my fellow classmates. Additionally, I often found myself representing all African-Americans, which at times can be a rather exhausting cross to bear. My earliest recollection of racial inequality was in the third grade. It February (Black history month) and as our class began, my teacher called me and asked that I leave my seat and follow her. She led me to our class storage room, which was filled with tons of supplies and a solitary desk in the middle of the small room. She told me that it was February, Black History month. She then went on to tell me that I should spend some time learning about my culture and placed a book about Black history on the desk. She left me alone in the storage room, away from my classmates, to learn “my history”. To this day, I still struggle to completely understand her thought process and intent.

b.       Growing up, I also recall multiple instances in which individuals used derogatory terms to refer to refer to African-American or Mexican-American individuals.

c.       As a Black male, I have also experienced more subtle racial injustice: people crossing the street late at night to avoid walking past me or clutching their purse as I walk by, fearful that I would try to rob them. It is also still fairly common to have store owners follow me throughout the store as I view merchandise.

Are there examples of things our profession is doing well and things our profession could improve upon when it comes to diversity (board positions, educators, residents, etc)? 

Within the dental profession, I think some groups have made decent progress towards creating a more inclusive and diverse environment. I think it was positive that the AAO and other dental-related groups released statements expressing their support of diversity and opposition to racism. I also think it’s good that the AAO is trying to develop pathways/strategies to enhance diversity (new Trustee opportunities). However, I still see many of the profession’s actions as more reactive than proactive. As you look at individuals in leadership positions, there is still a substantial lack of diversity (regardless of the metric used to define diversity).   

Are there ways in which the actual practice of orthodontics could be improved to better demonstrate and treat diverse populations?  What role do you think an orthodontist can play in working toward racial equality? 

I think the biggest thing in this area is access to care. Professionals tend to choose practice locations that provide them with certain benefits. It is not a bad thing to want to work and live in a certain area but this usual results in a disproportionate distribution of healthcare providers in certain aspects of a community. I believe this trend is also true within the orthodontic profession. I would hope that the orthodontic profession would work to create programs that better support the orthodontic needs of individuals in areas that have traditionally had less access to care. I also think orthodontists individually have the capacity (financially and socially) to improve racial equality. Furthermore, as a group we have the potential to support programs, as previously mentioned, that could help in this effort.

How would you recommend a white person best discuss the changing landscape with black people?  If we want to educate ourselves and learn more however not come across as offensive, is there a way in which you feel we can best accomplish this?  Do you know of any resources that are helpful for this?

I think it starts with just being brutally honest and transparent about your knowledge or lack thereof. In any relationship, you have to be willing to allow yourself to be vulnerable. This is especially true within this context and it is important that anyone seeking to engage in such a conversation be comfortable with being uncomfortable. There will be things that you don’t know, truths that you don’t like, and internal shortcomings that will be highlighted through the process. That is extremely unsettling to many but part of the process that can’t be avoided.  I believe, if you approach minority individuals with a genuine sense of concern and a willingness to listen with an open mind, you’re honest intentions will be perceived by those you are trying to better understand. Lastly, strive to listen first. Avoid the urge to jump in and “fix” things. No one could undo the hurt and confusion that I have experienced relative to my third grade experience. But I don’t need or want anyone to fix my experience; I don’t need to hear that someone is sorry when they hear my story. I do hope that they can recognize the impact that acts like that make on an individual and strive to avoid similar actions. While the events over the past few weeks and months have been intense, the reality is such activities occur more often than most know. So it is important to recognize that our nation’s racial injustice/inequity problem is ubiquitous in nature and impacts every literal and figurative aspect of the country. I hope the energy, interest, and conversations occurring relative to the nation’s/world’s inequalities don’t dissipate as they have often done in the past. This is not some fleeting news story or social media trend but a dark, destructive, and lingering issue that continues to envelope every individual in the country.  

Are there any local or nation organizations that you would recommend someone getting involved with (financially, skills, volunteer time, etc) in order to continue supporting diversity?

While I think it is important that everyone seeks to expand and support diversity, it is also important to note that “diversity” looks different in every community. So that makes it a little challenging to recommend a particular group or organization. I would recommend that anyone interested in supporting diversity, start by working to improve it in their own backyard. Look in their immediate community and identify what “enhanced and supported diversity” means and how they can contribute to that process.