Friday, February 25, 2011

Change happens: reflections from the dentist's chair

This week I spent some long hours in my dentist's chair. You can imagine the scene: I was tipped semi-upside down with an anesthetized mouth stretched by probes, drills and mirrors, rinse water and suction running through it all. A root canal feels uncomfortable and perhaps a little violent; I'm sure I bleed, but I don't really know. I do my best to blank out mentally while all this is going on. Since I have a lot of bad teeth, I've gotten pretty good at just drifting away in my head while in the dentist's chair.

This time, I found myself comparing the dental office of my childhood to my current scene. In the 1950s, my parents took me to a dentist who lived down the block. He was an upstanding member of the community, a leader in my mother's church. His dental practice seems primitive by modern standards: just one chair sitting completely upright, slow drills that rattled the skull when carving out a cavity, and, most unhappily for a child with bad teeth, a belief that good patients didn't require Novocaine. I hated him -- and I do sometimes wonder whether this ostensibly kindly, tall white man wearing starched white coats smelling like toothpaste wasn't a bit of a sadist.

This dentist employed a woman who answered the phone, made appointments and sent out bills but did no dental work. She wore an acrylic white "nurse" uniform and was referred to by her first name -- "Mary" I think. She called the dentist "Doctor." My parents called him "Bob." The neighborhood was slightly scandalized when Bob's wife died and he married Mary.

My current dentist's office is a very different place, the mirror of a very different location in a different time. My ultra-high tech dentist is a young South Asian-American woman who has just had a baby. She babbles happily about the delights and perils of being a new parent while she does my root canal. She has an assistant who provides tools and takes xrays, a Chinese-American woman. A young Filipina works as the receptionist and manages the complexities of dental insurance. This is an all women of color office, something that I think could not have been imagined in my childhood.

Drifting along in my addled state contemplating my current dentist's practice put me in mind of this video in which Loretta Ross explains the origin and implications of the term "women of color."

I was once on a panel with this woman, the subject of which I have forgotten. I was completely upstaged. There are people you can enjoy being overshadowed by.


Kay Dennison said...

She is really impressive, however, I think the key word is 'women'. And if we don't come together and unite regardless of color or ethnicity, we are doomed. Then again, I could be wrong.

I hope your root canal wasn't too painful.

janinsanfran said...

Actually Kay, I think Loretta would agree with you. She's speaking to a situation in which white feminists were publishing something like a 100 page piece of lit about "women" in which Black women were only considered on about 2 pages. When we fail to take each others unique experience into account, misunderstandings and even anger follows.

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