As a multicultural, multiracial plural system fronting from a Black body, we’ve encountered a fair deal of racial stereotyping and pigeonholing over our seventeen years in the plural community. About a year after we came to terms with our plurality, I wrote the first ‘Race Issue’ article after an awkward incident in which someone asked why we didn’t have anyone who matched the front’s racial background. We revisited the issue two more times: in 2009, I wrote a follow-up to my earlier post, and Em wrote from their own perspective in 2014. It’s been nine years since the last time we talked about plurality and race for our site, and we’ve developed new insights about who we are, what we believe and the message that we want to send. So, yet again, it’s time for a Race Issue article, this time as a Q&A.
Drawing from our outworld experiences, as well as those in our otherworld, we discuss the relationship between race and plurality and its meaning for our system in particular. Em, Vladimir, Hess, Yavari and I volunteered our responses.
(Note: Punctuation and spelling standards may vary, since each system member has a different style.)
Q: What are your racial and cultural backgrounds?
Jack: My father is English and my mother is Irish. I mostly see myself as British.
Vladimir: I’m mostly East Slavic, but I have some German and Crimean Tatar ancestry as well.
Hess: i’m a brit of russian, japanese, german jewish, buryat (indigenous mongol people in siberia) and han chinese descent.
Em: I’m a Black American whose family moved from Mississippi to California during the Great Migration of the 1950s.
Yavari: I grew up off Earth, on a planet where there are two sapient species, so my perception of human races is different from what you’d expect. I mostly just see myself as human. But I’d be considered a ‘person of colour’ here because my mother’s family is West African, Afro-Caribbean and Middle Eastern. My dad is British.
Q: What are common misconceptions about race and plurality that you want to correct?
Jack: That having a race different to the front body’s is somehow a sign of internalised racism—or a kind of cultural appropriation. We see our system as a kind of massive self-writing story. Are authors who write about different cultures appropriating? Did James Baldwin express internalised racism by writing Giovanni’s Room, which features no Black characters? It’s important, too, to consider the context in which a system lives. I suspect that we have a large number of European system members in part because we lived in Western Europe for six and a half years, including my own country. Looking at our skin colour alone wouldn’t tell you that.
Hess: that systems necessarily have control over what background their system members have. we never consciously decided to have the racial and ethnic composition we have. if we had more choice over ours, i think we’d probably have more black system members. we’re racially diverse, but very few of us match the front’s ethnic or racial characteristics. we’ve beaten ourselves up a lot over having so many european system members, even though there’s a concrete explanation for it that jack mentioned earlier.
Vladimir: I’m tired of the essentialism surrounding race in general. I don’t even believe in the sharp dichotomy between “white” and “person of colour”, especially since racial categories are fluid. Europeans express xenophobia towards each other all the time. In the UK, Poles and Romanians are treated similarly to Mexicans in America, despite the fact that most Britons, Poles and Romanians are “white”. I’m Eastern European, and I know I wouldn’t be treated the same in the UK or France as I would in my own country.
Yavari: That people in general see race the same way. As I said earlier, I’m an off-world human. Where I live, we all belong to one race—the human race. People do have cultural identities—Maidini, Biaritzan, Japanese, etc.—but we don’t use designations like ‘Black’ or ‘white’ or split people up by skin tones or phenotypic characteristics. I think living alongside a different sapient species (the Galudi) helped us realise that we were really all one people deep down.
Q: Can you name an incident involving plurality and race that was especially upsetting, and why?
Hess: in our early 20s, a friend of ours asked us why there weren’t any black people in our system. ‘i see your pictures and they’re all white,’ they said. but those photos were approximations. yavari, who is multiracial, couldn’t find a photo of a brown-skinned man that represented him, so he used a lighter-skinned person with an aesthetic that was close to his. (it turns out that i’m multiracial as well, but we didn’t know that back in 2007.) our art skills weren’t up to the task. jack talked about this incident in the first race issue article. we feel really uncomfortable with the idea that we have to match the front body. we don’t see white-bodied systems being questioned this way except for one case: if they have a lot of japanese system members. i don’t know why it’s japan and japan only.
Yavari: This doesn’t really involve us, except as a bystander, but there was somebody on a LiveJournal plurality community who said they had a ‘Negro’ system member. They were just young and ignorant (and from a country with a low Black population), but we were still really thrown off guard, since we don’t see that term very much outside old books.
Em: To piggyback on Yavari’s LiveJournal comment, there was another LJ incident involving a white-bodied system and Black system members. The head of a white-bodied system was posting about a group of “ebonic persons” (I shit you not, “ebonic persons”) that had joined the system and were suddenly making everything “anti-white.” They prayed about it and concluded that these “ebonic persons” were there to help them fight racism in their community. (To be clear, it’s not about the fact that these systems had Black members. We know other white-bodied systems who know not to be shitty and racist. It’s the way they talked about them.)
Vladimir: For the past three months, we’ve been taking Russian classes—some of us, including me, are Russian or of Russian descent. After one class, one of the other students asked Yavari why were studying Russian if we were black and queer. He was taken aback and didn’t know what to say. But we know now that this was racist. (Ironically, this person was of South-East Asian descent!) There are black people in Russia. It’s a small population, but it exists. And there are queer and trans people there too, even though Vladimir Putin and his followers want to pretend that they don’t exist, or shouldn’t exist.
No, this person didn’t know about our plurality, but it was still connected: we’re studying Russian because I want to use it—and because we enjoy learning new languages.
And in the end, it’s really none of her business, anyway. People can have any reason for learning a language: they want to travel to a new country, they want to understand the foreign TV shows they watch, they have relatives who speak it, or they can simply be curious.
Q: What do you wish people would understand about plurality and race?
Vladimir: That you don’t need to match your front body’s race to be a “good” system member. We have several explanations for our plurality, and one of them involves the creative process. Wouldn’t it be dull if every character in a story had the same ethnic, racial and socioeconomic background as the author?
Jack: There’s a difference between having a system member of a different race or ethnicity and being a stereotype. For example, we’ve known Black system members in non-Black-bodied systems. This doesn’t bother us, unless they treat their race like a sort of parody. Fortunately, we haven’t seen this happen very much outside trolls on Tumblr.
Em: There’s no such thing as being “transracial,” despite what online clowns have to say. You can have system members of a different race—in fact, it’s pretty common, from what we’ve seen over our 16 years in the plural community—but that’s not the same thing as wanting to bleach your skin or spend a lot of time in a tanning bed to “transition” the body, à la Rachel Doležal. Most of the “transracial” talk is just a way to discredit trans people. Also, members of plural systems know their racial and ethnic identities don’t match their front body. There’s no deceit going on.