Book to give blood
The decision to give blood (and at time same time, to join the bone marrow registry which you request at the time of donation) has been a long old emotional haul for me, mostly because when I think about it I feel three difficult things;
1. Afraid – because I don’t like needles. Or blood.
2. Responsible – because I have a rare blood type.
3. Guilty – because as a mixed race person I’m likely to be a rare tissue type too.
These 3 feelings also happen to be the exact same things I feel when I consider aspects of myself, and in particular, my racial background;
1. Afraid – because I’m mixed race and don’t always know how people feel about that.
2. Responsible – because I feel a duty to be more open about that.
3. Guilty – because I’m not more open about it (but more about that later).
And difficult feelings are the ones we all tend to avoid thinking about….
But with less than 1% of U.K. registered donors being mixed race, for me, the need to confront these two sets of issues (one a wider public health one, the other very personal and intimate) in a constructive way, feels increasingly deafening. Something that was compounded recently when I found out that the clock is ticking on the first; the age cut off for an ethnic minority bone marrow donor is actually 40. In a few short months I’m 39. For everyone else of a white European background, the cut off is even lower at just 30.
For me, even though doing this appeals to my moral compass generally, the decision to donate blood and potentially bone marrow (if I’m a match for someone) will always be inextricably bound up in my mixed race blood and heritage. And that prompted some much needed introspection around identity.
Basically, it’s time to face my fears.
All of them.
And maybe by doing this to help someone else, I can do something positive to help myself too?
Whatever your motivating factors, if you’re reading this and also considering donation, the time is very much NOW. You can read more about criteria such as age, ethnicity and health here;
(all donors must register before the age of 30)
(Will accept black, Asian and ethnic minority donors registering no later than the age of 40)
To begin with, the facts around blood cancers in the U.K. are sobering even before they are dissected by race and ethnicity.
On average, 70 people a day in the UK are diagnosed with a blood cancer. [2008 Incidence statistics from Cancer Research UK: non-Hodgkin lymphoma (11,861), leukaemia (7,700), multiple myeloma (4,516), Hodgkin lymphoma (1,730). Total blood cancers (25,807)].
That’s one person every 20 minutes.
Two thirds of UK patients won’t find a matching donor in their families. So they turn to places such as The Anthony Nolan Trust to find them an unrelated donor.
Currently, only 60% of patients can find the best possible match from a stranger, and this drops dramatically to 20.5% if you’re a patient from a black, Asian or ethnic minority background.
I can’t begin to imagine what this means to a mixed race person and their family, someone like this young Londoner, Lara, who months before her own shock cancer diagnosis had actually recognised this shortage and joined the marrow donor register herself;
Thankfully a donor was found for Lara (who is half Thai and half Italian), saving her life, but only after a world wide appeal that ended up adding 50,000 more people to the donor register, one of the biggest of its kind, and literally akin to trying to find a needle in a haystack.
I read her story and I thought – next time what if that needle is supposed to be me?
What if it’s a child? The same age as one of my two?
What if it’s me who needs the needle, and no one with the power to save my life has acted?
How would I feel depending on that but knowing I didn’t act for someone else either?
Isn’t it time I got past all my anxieties and did something?
Isn’t it time I did something to put my hand up as a mixed race person generally, instead of skirting around my identity, shying from it, awkward as hell?
Because I really have and it’s a big part of what led me to donating. Let me explain;
I’m half English and half Asian, but being as I popped out with white blonde hair (it’s brown now), a spattering of freckles and blue eyes as a baby, in the predominantly white South East of England, I’ve tended to just ride the wave of ease and anonymity in a crowd that looking white has afforded me. Trouble is I’ve always harboured a vague, nagging guilt and shame about that too.
Unlike some of my Asian friends or other members of my immediate and wider Asian family, I don’t have to face a daily grind of bigotry, starting with the throw away remarks that are expected to be treated as ‘harmless’ or ‘just words’, right up to the more serious stuff, like my pal S and her husband, who arrived at their new home in a posh neighbourhood on moving day with their two babies in tow, to a poster cellotaped to their front door telling them “F-off back” and inferring they were terrorists. Yes, nothing says “welcome to the neighbourhood, don’t be afraid to stop by for a cup of sugar” quite like that…
At primary school, I remember my Year 1 teacher threw all the brown kids on one table at the back of the room together, me included on account of my foreign surname. It was the early 80’s and times may well have changed, granted, but I recall it as an early taste of the kind of negative casual bias I would grow up around; a Sikh, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Farsi and me (who had no religion), all clumped together, our teacher assuming what? That we’d feel more comfortable? That we’d have nothing in common with the other kids? That we’d all speak the same language? Share a common culture? That we could spend our days discussing curry and the old country? We were 4!! We spoke English with our Medway accents, watched Danger Mouse avidly, ate oven chips and crisps and ten penny mixes like everyone else our age. We didn’t have much of a clue about religion and even if we did, we didn’t have a single faith in common between us (and I was raised without a faith!).
That kind of casual racism was always in the background, drip, drip, drip.
Was my life ever at risk? No.
Was I beaten up? No.
Did I lack friends of all backgrounds? No.
Did I do badly at school? No.
But I know people who were and did, and that series of small, negative events that I experienced became a bit like a splinter buried under a layer of thick skin; it slowly festered.
It made me anxious.
It left me intensely private on the one hand, to protect myself and my family from that minority of people (on both sides) who did not approve of us, but also desperate to express myself confidently on the other (which might explain why I like writing, communicating from a safe distance, and often anonymously)
I remember how at high school, white kids would whisper to me about brown kids in the class, calling them Paki’s and saying they ‘smelled bad’, forgetting that my Dad was as brown as a berry and Friday night was always curry night in our house.
As a self-conscious teen, I never knew where to look when things like that happened so I just mumbled and changed the subject.
In my twenties, if me and my sister – all black hair, green eyes and olive skin – went out for drink, we’d spend half the night defending our full-blooded sisterhood to the lads who, after getting the brush off, thought it was hilarious to make a “sorry love, but your dad’s the postman” joke. Or ten. Just. Drop. It. Already.
Then there was the time that I’d just started dating my now husband and we caught a train up to Cambridge to see a concert. On the way home a drunk white guy in the seat opposite started trying to talk to me, loudly, about “paki’s taking over”, about “dirty, filthy immigrants” sending the country “down the drain”. He kept badgering me for approval, calling me “love”, treating me as his racial and ideological kith and kin.
Every word felt like a dagger, because no one spoke up. I felt the weight and shame of inadvertently being able to hide behind the white skin that he’d viewed as an open invitation. My face felt like it was burning. I wanted to cry and felt under a very particular kind of personal pressure. Exposed.
I felt responsible for challenging that man, that for some reason, it was more my duty than anyone else’s to speak up. Maybe it was? I still don’t know. I still look back on my silence then and feel like the worst kind of Judas and fraud because I hid myself and let someone abuse my heritage to my face. The only positive was my future (white) husband didn’t. The grip of his hand over mine was iron and maybe outwardly he looked like he was wasting his time on a drunk idiot, but really he wasn’t. Really my husband to be was talking to me, not him, because he understood that what had happened went right to the heart of my identity, my weaknesses and my self-doubt. He told me many years later that he realised how much he loved me right then.
But I was afraid so I said nothing. And then, in a recurring theme, I felt bad. But secretly of course…
A few years later I was working in London for a large recruitment company and our team had sent a CV shortlist over to a world famous retailer owned by (ironically as it turns out) a world famous ‘Man Who Isn’t White’ (I’ll leave it at that). One of the CVs was of an Indian man, an excellent managerial candidate who was more than qualified. The HR Manager at the client side dutifully shuffled emails for us, forwarding our shortlist to the Hiring Manager who fired back this response;
[English Name #1] – yes
[English Name #2] – yes
[Indian Name #1] – Mr Curry Popadom – No
The HR Manager forwarded it straight to our team without reading it properly, clearly then realised and had a coronary, and immediately followed it up with three very blunt requests by email that we immediately delete it from our server or ‘jeopardise the client relationship’.
I showed my boss.
Unwilling to ‘jeopardise the relationship’ she asked me to ‘stop over reacting’ and ‘take a deep breath’ in the way only the truly condescending and ignorant can. Ignorant because she couldn’t imagine how it might feel to see it written in black and white (excuse the pun) that having a brown face or foreign name can invite such naked discrimination. Can put the skids on your career. Can leave you unfairly unemployed. Even if you were born here. She didn’t have to then wonder if jobs she’d never been selected for interview for were down to nothing more than the ethnicity her name implied.
But I did.
Because where I had been able to hide behind the colour of my skin, and hair and eyes, I couldn’t hide behind my Asian name.
I learned that money, not principles, and sometimes not even the law, talked loudest in the rat race. It made me hide even more.
And it fucking well hurt.
Some years later when I moved out to Australia, still working in recruitment, racism in the job market was rife. Working with businesses who wanted to appeal to an affluent white elite client or customer base, I quickly understood that many didn’t want to employ the influx of accented East Asians from China, however well qualified. I lost count of how many times clients asked for ‘a face that fits’, ‘home grown’, ‘well spoken’ or just brazenly said ‘no accents’. In a country literally built on immigrants and imported skills sets, it was hard work filling jobs with such an uphill battle to make the ratios work. Perhaps the clients I worked with were not all so selective in their social lives or privately, but at work, a significant number took a no bones approach and simply knuckled down to the bigoted corporate game. I fell back in to old ‘hiding’ habits by using my English married name for work ‘just in case’, and continued to float anonymously in this murky sea, still too afraid to speak up, my internal narrative of shame at my own apathy and lack of courage on an endless upward spiral.
And then my beloved brown-skinned, brown-eyed, handsome, wise Dad,
a Doctor with a philosopher’s heart and poets love of words, died.
I came home to roost, to finally settle
down and have babies. And to stop being afraid. If my babies have taught me anything, it’s to be stronger than I ever thought I could be.
If I wasn’t going to work in an office playing someone else’s game, hiding, ducking and diving, for the forseable future, then I would work on cultivating my own truth. On living authentically as me, comfortable in my hybrid skin. I would set that example to my kids. I would write, for me, and say whatever the hell I damned well liked! And I would speak up for myself and others. I would make my Dad proud.
I’m getting there.
Taking action today to give blood and join the marrow register is one of the most direct ways I feel I can stand up and be counted as a proud and positive mixed race person, and give something back to both the communities – Asian and White – I belong to.
As for giving blood – well that’s universal. Whatever our names, the colour of our skin, wherever we hail from, we are all made of, and dependent on, the same flesh and blood. There is always common ground between us all and turns out it’s red…
I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of a better way to celebrate that great human leveller than to give the gift of my own to a fellow man, woman or child in need. It gives me hope, makes me smile, happy to step out of hiding.
Will you do the same?
To sign up to give blood, generate a unique donor reference number and find a donation venue to book in at near you, go to;
Tell the blood donation team when you arrive if you wish to become a bone marrow donor too – they will take an extra blood sample for tissue typing.
If you’re healthy, under 30 and want to become a bone marrow donor, it’s a real responsibility so do your research here;
If, like me, you’re a black, Asian or ethnic minority individual, you can still donate up to age 40, to the following register rather than The Anthony Nolan Trust (though they will still be able to search your tissue type and contact you as all registers are shared);
And then give yourself a massive pat on the back! 😉
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