Some years back, a black friend took me to a Poetry Slam event organised by the Afro-Caribbean Leukaemia Trust. The event, which pitched a team of Black British performance poets against a team of Black American performance poets in a crowd-judged event, was great fun. But it was during the interval that the founder and head of the Afro-Caribbean Leukaemia Trust (Orin Lewis OBE) climbed up on the stage and talked about the real reason why we were there.
Some years previously, his child had developed leukaemia and needed a bone marrow transplant to survive. Unfortunately, though, there was no matching donor on the national bone marrow register, meaning his child was going to die.
Why was there no matching donor? Well the register had been created and filled by the Anthony Nolan Trust, a brilliant, grass-roots led volunteer organisation whose volunteer supporters had run events across the country where they’d invited their family and friends to come and do a simple blood test that would get their profile and add them to the register.
And therein lies the answer to the question. Because the founders of the Anthony Nolan trust had been white, their friends and family had been overwhelmingly white, meaning that the people on the register were overwhelmingly white. And since whether or not someone is a match for you is a matter of genetics, that meant that a black person’s chances of finding a donor were vastly less than a white person’s.
It’s no one’s fault. No one had set out to do this. Everyone had had good intentions. But we’d ended up in a situation where if a white child developed acute leukaemia they had a good chance of survival, but if a black child developed acute leukaemia, their chances were very poor. And that can’t be right.
Orin was a bit of hero. He didn’t take it lying down, but instead went out and organised drives within his community, getting thousands of black people onto the register and eventually finding a donor who saved his child’s life. But he hadn’t stopped there. He’d founded the trust and made it his mission to get more black people onto the register, to save other black kids. The Trust worked in partnership with Anthony Nolan: the trust found the people, and Anthony Nolan tested them and added them to the national register.
It has to be stressed that this is win-win for everyone. Having more black people on the register doesn’t in any way reduce the chance of a white child finding a donor. Anthony Nolan’s mission isn’t simply to have the largest number of people on the register; it’s to have a register that provides a donor to the largest number of people. And every person from a diverse background added to the register significantly increases the register’s reach.
It’s all good. And any decent white person should be horrified about the idea that black children had such poor chance of survival and want to help any and all efforts to help improve those chances. And here’s the point, and my question to those who, when they hear a cry of “Black Lives Matter”, feel compelled to respond with “All Lives Matter”.
When he was giving his speech and saying his shocking figures (I can’t remember what they were, but let’s just say that it was that a white child with acute leukaemia had a 60% chance of survival while a black child had only a 10% chance of survival), and finishing by saying that Black children with leukaemia deserved effective treatment, should I have stood up and heckled him by shouting “No! All children with leukaemia deserve effective treatment!”?
I’ll say that again for those at the back. When he said that Black children with leukaemia deserved effective treatment, should I have stood up and heckled him by shouting “No! All children with leukaemia deserve effective treatment!”?
The answer, of course, is no. And the question to whether you should respond to a cry of Black Lives Matter with Actually, All Lives Matter is, similarly, no.
When I attended the event, I wasn’t on the Anthony Nolan register. Aware as I was of the purpose of the event, I didn’t want to risk causing even one black person to not get on the register. I was worried that they might not be able to test everyone. But I gave it about twenty minutes until everyone was in the queue, and then joined at the very back, so I was literally the last person to get to the four lovely elderly white ladies from the Anthony Nolan trust who were doing the testing.
“You can do white people too, right?” I asked them. “I mean it’s all going on the same register, right?”
They smiled and said yes, and yes. So they tested me, and I’m on the register. And that means that if ever I get tracked down and told my bone marrow donation could save someone’s life (and that someone will likely be white), it will mean that that person’s been saved thanks to a black solidarity event.
There’s probably a message in there somewhere.