TCDM Hosts National Dental Community Leaders on Recognizing & Addressing Microaggressions in Dentistry

Touro College of Dental Medicine


On July 28, the Touro College of Dental Medicine (TCDM) hosted the symposium, “Microaggressions are Just the Beginning: Impact on the Professional Student,” offering a candid and informative discussion to increase awareness of and response to microaggressions in the field of dentistry, especially in relation to professional student. This informative and honest discussion comes as an increased focus is placed on microaggressions in medicine and improvement of patient and healthcare professional relations.

The symposium, organized by Eric Wachs D.M.D, mentor for the TCDM Student Professionalism and Ethics Association and Dean Ronnie Myers D.D.S., included presentations and discussion from esteemed voices in the dental community, Brian Shue, D.D.S., President of the American Association of Dental Editors and Journalists, Kathy O’Loughlin, D.M.D., Executive Director of the American Dental Association (ADA), Kevin Gin, Ph.D., Senior Strategic Partner for Institutional Initiatives and Assessment at California State University, and Pamela Alston, D.D.S., President of the National Dental Association (NDA). 

Dr. Shue, who shared his own experience with microaggressions, kicked off the programming by pinpointing exactly what they are, examining the challenges of identifying them and being aware of them in a social or professional setting.

“Microaggressions are not clear. You would really think ‘Did I hear that?’ or ‘Did I really see that?’. Microaggressions are subtle, they can be nonverbal, or they can be verbal. They can be seen as a slight or as an insult, and they can be on purpose or sometimes even unintentional. Nevertheless, they can be seen as hostile and even derogatory to the targeted person.”

Dr. Gin then expanded the conversation, running through the origins and scholarly research of microaggressions, specifically in educational settings. He explained how microaggressions became “mainstream,” how they are generally defined, and the different categorizations they have been segmented into as research has developed.

With the definition and history of microaggressions laid out, the conversation was passed to Dr. Alston, who shared her experiences with microaggressions in dental school and how the effects of those experiences are still with her decades later. She then explained how important allyship can be for students who are dealing with these challenges and the different roles allies can play. She also outlined what it means to practice effective allyship and what allyship isn’t.

Dr. O’Loughlin then discussed the increasing numbers of women in dental school, noting that in the coming years women will dominate the field. She explained that a key part in phasing out microaggressions and discrimination in medicine, especially toward women, is in closing the gaps that exist in dental school and the profession. She then explained the challenges with each of these gaps in learning, leadership, family behavior, and treatment. She also provided examples of common microaggressions women deal with in dental school and in the dental profession.

After these focused presentations from each of the symposium participants, attendees were welcomed to ask their own questions. The Q&A discussion was moderated by professor Wachs.

How can “community mavens” be located?

Dr. Pamela Aston: I think people need to know that they have something of value to say, and the need to own their power and influence. We want to be non-judgmental, and we want to let people do their own thing, but I think as a community, we need to share our voices. It’s about helping people recognize that they can make a difference.

What are some phrases you suggest a victim of microaggressions to say that could be respectful and nonthreatening to the aggressor, but a learning moment? Especially if the aggressor is in a superior position or title at work?

Dr. Pamela Aston: I practice motivational interviewing and sometimes when people hear what they said, they are shocked that they said it. So, I do believe in starting out not accusatory, but maybe say ‘Hey what are you guys discussing?’ and then as they tell you what they’re discussing reflect back to them what they said, because I think, especially in dental school, many of the microaggressions from students to other students are not intentional and sometimes comes from a lack of education and a lack of sensitivity. You know, putting it in a context, because once they graduate and even when they are in dental school, they start to see patients. Patients are going to depend on them to be compassionate, to be sensitive, to not hurt feelings, to not use fighting words, if you will.

Dr. Kathy O’Loughlin: You want to make sure that they know that you’re not on the attack, but you simply are hoping this is a moment where they can be sensitized to the hurt that you feel if you’re the victim or the subject they’re talking about. You know to be accepting and to be compassionate means you just have to listen sometimes.

Dr. Pamela Alston: You have to use your judgement because sometimes it’s most prudent to handle it on the spot and sometimes it’s best to handle it privately, because what you want is for them to understand what they said and you don’t want them to get overly defensive.

Dr. Brian Shue: You also have the choice not to bring it up and what the experts have said is that sometimes it’s not actually something you want to address, sometimes, you may want to find allies, or you might want to find social groups. You can talk about the incident so that you can understand what’s happening, but there’s always a choice not to do anything as well.

Dr. Ronnie Myers: Many times it’s better to give the benefit of the doubt to the person who is not really understanding what they said, or how they said it. Taking the high road initially so that you can address it later is mostly a good approach, whether it be private or public that’s a different story.

What can you say about the age disparity in recognizing microaggressions?

Dr. Kevin Gin: I think by taking a look at it by age, and there hasn’t been any study that I’m aware of that looks at just awareness by age. Assuming that it’s just age makes a person seem one-dimensional, without considering sexual identities, race, gender, ability, class, etc. What we know is that these inherent forms of biases are things you can experience at all times throughout your life. The risk of saying that there’s a hierarchy, that some people can experience some more than others, I mean oppression is oppression. It’s not necessarily something that I think you can pinpoint as a base, but it’s really all those intersecting identities that you have. I mean as someone who isn’t a woman, I’m not going to experience the pay gaps that we see there, regardless of what my age is. So, it’s one of the things that you experience them, it’s there and that’s where I get back into allowing us to pause for a second and reflect and acknowledge the fact that someone who isn’t me can experience a life that’s very different than mine, that the things I say may not be things that I’m aware can hurt other people. Getting back to the idea that we’re connected and we’re caretakers and we want the best to create a better world for all those people out there.

When women point out microaggressions I find that we are seen as petty and overly sensitive, how do you deal with that?

Dr. Kathy O’Loughlin: Women and men are labeled differently and it’s very much a reflection of gender bias. You know, a man who is assertive is considered a strong leader, a woman who’s assertive can be considered really bossy. If a woman is a very sharp dresser, she’s considered a show-off where a man who is a very sharp dresser is classy. I think there’s a tendency to put labels on people that can be hurtful. It’s really about helping people understand that labeling and stereotyping people is probably something that’s not helpful.

About 30% of women join the ADA, what can we do to encourage more women to do that?

Dr. Kathy O’Loughlin: Well, it’s actually a little bit higher than that. It’s getting closer to about 54% but national membership is about 63%, so we have a gap. We actually set up a program called The Accelerator Series targeted to women to meet their needs in their professional life and it’s been very successful, so actually the fastest growing group in the ADA are women dentists, but we haven’t quite caught up to the market growth. Half of the dental school classes are women, that’s 3200 women graduating every year from dental school and we’re only absorbing about 1800 of them. We would like to get all of them in. So, we’re customizing programs targeting women and their professional career paths, and hopefully that will give them a safe place.

Dentists perceive the value of organized dentistry at their local component level and sometimes women dentists and dentists of color have told me they don’t feel welcomed at the local level and that they actually feel ignored and marginalized, especially if they work as an employee dentist. So, we’ve got some work to do on sensitizing the local level to be welcoming and inclusive and you know, not kind of treat the new person as something odd. Many of us participate in local dental meetings, and they can be a little cliquey, so we’re working very hard on the local experience to be welcoming and safe and really meaningful for the new dentists coming in.

Pamela Aston: What women need in organized dentistry when they’re at the ground level is allies and mentors.

This Q&A is adapted from Touro College of Dental Medicine’s symposium “Microaggressions are Just the Beginning: Impact on the Professional Student” held via Zoom on July 28, 2021.


Dealing With Patient Feelings

How Does Value-Based Care Really Work in a Dental Office?

Treating the “Whole Patient” Builds the Practice