Jay Smooth's Dental Hygiene Metaphor on Racism

Jay Smooth's Dental Hygiene Metaphor on Racism

By Tehya Wachuta, Editor-in-Chief Originally published in Issue 7, Volume 33 of The University Register on February 12, 2021

Happy Black History month! I am embarrassed to admit that I don’t think I knew February was Black History Month until this year. It is absolutely possible that I forgot, but it’s also possible that I was not paying attention. I am taking Multicultural Psychology this semester, and although we are only four weeks in, I’m discovering there is a lot about racial discrimination in our society that I have not been paying attention to. Part of it is probably because I grew up in a mostly white town and part of it is because I never really paid attention to the news until the pandemic hit last year (which, I know, is not the best trait for a prospective journalist). But since it is Black History Month, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk to our readers about a conversation about racism discussed in my psychology class.

In his TED talk about racism, Jay Smooth used an analogy about dental hygiene to convey a potential way to discuss racism. People often become very sensitive when someone tries to approach them about something they said or did that seemed racist. Smooth proposed that this reaction was due to the common line of thinking that, if someone says or does something racist, that makes them a racist, and therefore a bad person. Although this is a common perspective, it is not the most accurate, nor does it invite healthy discussions about race and racism. Instead, Smooth suggested that people interpret a comment about something racist they’ve said or done in the same way they would interpret a friend telling them they had something stuck in their teeth.

While the mindset of “I have said something racist; therefore I am a racist and a bad person” is simplistic and leaves no room for nuance, Smooth’s dental hygiene metaphor allows a person to recognize that they have made a mistake, then try to correct that mistake without defining themselves by their shortcomings. This would allow for healthier conversations about race and racism, and would enable people to embrace self-betterment rather than refusing to acknowledge any mistakes out of self-defense of one’s morals. When I first heard the metaphor, I thought it would be a great improvement if more people were able to view racism this way. Encouraging self-embetterment without judgement is easier said than done, but if we all try to navigate racial discussions this way, we will be better equipped to have open, honest, multifaceted conversations about race and racism.

I used Black History Month as an entryway into this topic, but obviously, this is an important topic to keep in mind not just this month, but during all conversations about race and racism that we may have for the rest of our lives. I don’t know about you, reader, but this past year has made me more aware of problems with racial discrimination than I used to be. I know there are many things I am still not aware of, and it’s likely I don’t fully understand everything I have learned about recently, but I thought Jay Smooth’s metaphor was a excellent and tactful way to explore this topic and I wanted to share it with you. We cannot solve problems without being aware of them and knowing how to discuss them. Conversations about social issues tend to become politicized in our society, and I believe taking Jay Smooth’s advice would enable us to discuss important problems like racism in effective, non-divisive ways. If we are all able to evaluate ourselves and take constructive criticism with more grace, we may just be able to create more balanced, safe environments for important discussions.

Image on top courtesy of The Georgia Straight