Black History Month – from the perspective of a dentist

Black History MonthWith October marking the beginning of Black History Month, dentist Richard Adepoju speaks out about his own experiences – and what he would like to see happen.

The theme for Black History Month this year is ‘Proud to Be’. Through my preparation and reflection for this piece, I had to think deeply about what this really meant for me.

What am I proud to be? I’m proud to be more than just another statistic, I’m proud to have proven that your skin colour does not define or predetermine how your life will turn out, I’m proud to have achieved everything I have done so far. But most importantly I’m proud to be me, Richard Adepoju, a 26-year-old Nigerian-born, Irish-raised black man, striving to succeed, determined to be the best, resilient to the point where no obstacle is too much to overcome.

I have to start by giving a shoutout to my parents and the lessons they taught me and my siblings when we were younger to prepare us for the real world. From young, they always instilled an attitude of hard work and concentration in us.

While I didn’t fully understand at the time, now I appreciate the lessons they taught us – that being black means that we have an added target on our backs.

Different conveniences and leniencies

They taught us that people would look down on us just for the sole reason that our melanin levels are higher. That we would not have the same conveniences and leniencies that our white friends might enjoy. That being a non-Irish born black youth meant that one unfortunate incident with the police could mean our Irish passports being revoked and being sent packing on the next plane back to Nigeria.

I don’t really know if it was naivety or a lack of experience/understanding, but I never thought much of it all until I saw the world for myself.

I graduated from UCC in Cork, Ireland, and have been practising as a dentist for just under two years now. Even though COVID has massively impacted my first couple of years in practice, I’ve generally thoroughly enjoyed life as a dentist. I love the people I work with, and I’ve felt pretty much right at home from day one.

It’s been a huge jump going from uni to the working world and there’s been a lot to learn. But thanks to the great team we have, especially my nurse who always keeps me in check, it’s been a smooth transition. I always knew I wanted to be a medical professional.

Microaggressions in practice

At first, I thought I wanted to be a doctor. But as I grew older, I realised I valued my personal time, and I saw dentistry as the perfect balance between getting to help people, improve their health and self-confidence, while also having time outside of work to focus on my hobbies, friends, and family. Not to mention the hands-on aspect to the job which really drew me in as well.

I’ve been really impressed by the level of diversity I’ve witnessed in dentistry in the UK, especially at Mydentist. While I personally haven’t experienced any inequality or barriers in my career so far, there have been a few instances of microaggressions. I understand that these are not always intentional. But they need to be recognised as not acceptable, so that we can all continue to get better.

One such example of microaggression is when a patient rang up for an appointment, was given one with me, and on hearing my surname asked: ‘Oh where’s he from?’ ‘Can he speak English?’ I’m not the type of person to let things like this impact me, I never have been.

But when this type of situation is a regular occurrence for you, it plays on your mind and you start wondering what you can do to spark a change. The sad thing is it’s not something that can be changed with the flick of a switch in my opinion. I believe that diversity and equality need to be introduced as a culture to the younger generations, so that in 10 or 15 years’ time, it’s just normal.

Race holds too much power

One of my favourite artists to listen to, David Omoregie, or Dave as he’s better known, says in his 2019 hit titled ‘Black’, that ‘Black is working twice as hard as the people you know you’re better than, because you need to do double what they do so you can level them’.

This lyric has resonated with me since the very first time I heard it, and I see now how it fits in so perfectly with the lessons of my parents which I outlined above. History has proven time and time again that race holds too much power in society, from slavery and segregation to apartheid and police brutality, and it’s time for that to change.

I appreciate that this is a very tough conversation to have. But the fact that it’s so difficult is exactly why it needs to be spoken about. The biggest mistake we can make as a society is to think that highlighting a black man’s story and experience is synonymous with dismissing the white man. No. We’re aiming for a world where race doesn’t matter at all. Where people can look at one another and not even think about whether you’re black or white. That’s the vision.

Keep grafting

If there’s any young black people reading this who feel discouraged or at a disadvantage because of their skin colour, I have one small piece of advice for you. You get everything you work for in this life. You don’t work hard and not reap the benefits of it. Keep grafting, keep grinding, keep being the best version of yourself. And keep showing that you have the drive and determination to be unrivalled.

Because guess what? If you continue to prove that you’re the best, they have no option but to put you in that top position, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.

Be proud to be you.

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