“Strictly speaking, race does not exist,” Fe Bencosme says.
Bencosme, author of the new book “You Are Not Your Race: Embracing Our Shared Humanity in a Chaotic Age,” says she knows her writings on race will offend people, but the reality is “there’s no black race, there’s no white race, there’s no yellow or red race. These are ideas that were literally created by some taxonomist a very long time ago.”
Bencosme joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to share her own story of struggling with the topic of race, and to explain why she thinks Americans have become so obsessed with it.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: Fe Bencosme is the author of the new book “You Are Not Your Race: Embracing Our Shared Humanity in a Chaotic Age.” And she joins us now. Fe, welcome to the show.
Fe Bencosme: Thank you for having me, Virginia.
Allen: Well, Fe, maybe in our society it’s a comfort thing, I think it’s maybe in part of our culture, but we love putting people in categories in today’s society. And this is certainly true when it comes to the topic of race. But you are pushing back on this narrative in your book “You Are Not Your Race.”
Let’s begin with your own story. How did your background play a role in you being compelled to write a book about race?
Bencosme: It just has a lot to do with me growing up between three cultures, really. My father’s culture, he was from the Dominican Republic. My mother, she was from the U.S. Virgin Islands. And then just being born in New York City and traversing those three geographical areas, so to speak. And just seeing the differences in people, but still the similarities in people in all of these three places.
And I don’t necessarily think of myself as biracial. Because a lot of people want to put people like myself in that box because my father is this Dominican, or Spanish-speaking person of European descent, and then my mother being of African descent, there’s this desire to put me in this biracial box. But I don’t necessarily see myself that way.
So yeah, just being this person of these two diverse cultures. And just recognizing that despite those differences, I am just this one person is really what’s behind this book. Yes.
Allen: What was the message that you received as a little girl growing up in different cultures and having those kind of split backgrounds in your parents being from different places? What did you learn from your community, from the people around you about who you were, your identity, and the topic of race? Was it talked about?
Bencosme: It wasn’t. And it’s interesting because as a little girl, the differences weren’t pointed out. The differences, no one made a big deal about them. And I think it’s really because no one really thought about them.
I don’t know, that may seem naive to a lot of people, but that is just the way it is. It was the way it was. It was not pointed out. And really it wasn’t, it wasn’t until I came into being an adult that there seemed to be this preoccupation with, well, why do you look the way you do? Where are you from? Who are you? What’s going on here? We need to know.
And in my head, we need to know because we need to know how we should interact with you depending on where you’re from.
Allen: That’s so fascinating. People want to know.
Bencosme: Yes, yes. And I think it is something that is, I don’t know, that it’s been instilled in us. Really, when you think of it, as children, we just play with each other. We’re not paying attention to what this other person looks like or what they sound like. We just know that this is another person, it’s a playmate. And let’s all have fun and be together and play.
And it’s really only until someone starts pointing out those differences to us that we start taking notice. And that’s when the trouble starts. And that’s what we see happening in our education system right now, beginning from a very, very young age, which is one of the reasons why I decided to just delve into this topic and write this book. It’s because I see what’s purposefully being foisted onto our children and it’s very, very scary.
Allen: I was fascinated by the fact that you draw a very clear distinction in the book between race, ethnicity, and nationality. Can you explain the differences between those three?
Bencosme: When we were created, if anyone turns to the Book of Genesis, it says right there that we were created as one human race. And it is from that race that we have man and woman, or male and female.
And the differences, these are the ethnicities, the nations that were created further along in our creation story, where, quite frankly, we got a little too big for our britches and we tried to equate ourselves with our creator. And that’s where we saw the creation of nations and ethnicities.
And this is where we are different, in the languages that we speak and the customs that we hold, and the traditions that we may share among those different groups. But race as this thing that is black or white, there is no such thing.
I hope I answered your question without delving, getting too chaotic there.
Allen: Absolutely. I know that that’s a big conversation and a big topic. But something that you just said you repeat in the book. And this might be one of the most controversial statements in the book, but it’s honestly what the whole book hinges on. And you say, “Our national obsession with race is essentially damaging when you consider that, strictly speaking, race does not exist.” That is a bold claim to make in this day and age. What do you mean that race doesn’t exist?
Bencosme: It doesn’t exist in the sense that we think it does, that we believe it does, that we have been led to believe that it does. There is no classification, there is no race gene.
There’s no—oh, boy, and I know that I’m going to offend a lot of people. I’m sorry. There’s no black race, there’s no white race, there’s no yellow or red race. These are ideas that were literally created by some taxonomist a very long time ago. It was a convenient way for, I guess, divvying up people and understanding people. But in the sense that we think of race, no, it does not exist. There is only the human race. Period. End of sentence.
Well, Chapter 3 of the book is titled “What Are We Teaching Our Children About Race?” And we know that there are books like “Antiracist Baby,” Ibram X. Kendi, and “A is for Activist” by [Innosanto] Nagara. And these are books that are in kids libraries across America. What effect do books like these, and talking to kids about race, what effect does that have on kids?
I would imagine that the effect it will have on children is really setting a worldview that will force them to look at people around them in terms of these identities, these definitions that were, again, created by people really for nefarious purposes, if we’re really to be honest. And then it impacts the way that they themselves will interact with the world, and often time in very limiting ways.
I think of myself. If I had been told at a very young age that because I was this then I could only do this or be this, then I would not have done a number of things that I would’ve done. I would’ve not taken the risks or I would have not ventured out into the world the way that I did.
My parents were Caribbean immigrants, so to speak. My mother, yes, she was from the U.S. Virgin Islands, but still, coming from these small islands to mainland United States, she’s still kind of an immigrant. And so was my father.
And they were laborers. They were eighth grade-educated laborers. And really, I could have limited myself to being, I guess being nothing more than, I don’t know, another laborer because of whatever it is that someone said to me that I was supposed to be, because of that.
But no, I went out, I ventured into the world. I did not allow myself to be limited to my community. I went on to pursue an education—the first in my family to go on and achieve a college education and then a graduate degree. I pursued a doctoral education I didn’t complete for reasons the reader can find out in the book.
But these are all, I don’t know, I think these are all things that I just would not have done if I had bought into a very self-limiting view of myself. And nor did I think that anyone—nor did I think that I was entitled to be given these things because of the way I presented physically to the world.
Allen: And when you say that you didn’t limit yourself and when you went out into the world, you literally went out into the world. You talk about in the book how you spent time, actually, in the Middle East and how that actually played a huge role in shaping and forming your perspective on people and the issue of race and ethnicity. Share a little bit about how that time living in the Middle East helped to form your own views and perspectives on this topic.
Bencosme: It’s fascinating. When the media has such an influence on us and when the media tells us something is, we tend to accept that. And this is especially the case when it comes to people and creating stereotypes and ideas about who people are because of where they come from.
So we have this image that the Middle East, for example, everybody looks the same way. Everybody thinks the same way. Everybody even dresses the same way. And by that I mean all women are dressed in abaya, this is the black cloak. Or in some cases, in some countries it’s a blue cloak. And that all women cover their hair in hijab.
A lot of women do, and they do it for personal reasons, for modesty and for religious reasons as well. And with very few exceptions, there are some countries [that] I guess compel women to do so. But not all of Muslim or Arabic-speaking countries do.
But I was just fascinated traveling through that region to come across people in all tones of skin colors, and eye colors, and hair textures. It was amazing. It was almost earth-shattering, earth-moving. Because it was just not what I had seen on TV and in movies.
I mean, there were freckled-faced people, and red-haired people, and blond people, and blue-eyed people, and dark-skinned people, and coarse-haired people. It was just a potpourri of every skin, eye, hair color that you could imagine.
Allen: I love that. I’m certainly a huge proponent of travel. I think that … it does do such wonders, something that nothing else can do, just to opening our eyes, our perspective to the broader world. And it breaks so many of those stereotypes, like you mentioned.
I want to take a minute and talk a little bit about history. Because you do a great job of addressing this in the book. And you write in Chapter 5, I think it’s quite the profound statement, you write, “What we choose to remember is history, does not change the past, but where we choose to focus our gaze does change the present and future.”
So what do we do with our history, with the parts that aren’t beautiful and that maybe even feel a little shameful?
Bencosme: Well, quite honestly, we have to embrace it. It is a part of who we are. And we recognize that, OK, yes, this not so beautiful part of our history, it’s not something that we can bury. It is what it is. But we must embrace it, we must learn from it. But more importantly, we cannot let it bury into our souls and become this source of anger, this source of animosity.
Otherwise, I mean, what is it going to do to our souls? It’s going to just really hinder our souls, to corrupt our souls, and it’s going to color the way we interact with others. And ultimately, be of detriment to ourselves. Not to the other people, but to ourselves.
Allen: When you were writing the book, and doing research for it, and remembering your own story, was there a section that you found maybe challenged your own views and perspectives or was just challenging to write?
Bencosme: Oh my gosh. I have friends from all walks of life. And I don’t mean that just socially, economically, but just from all kinds of communities. And I know that there are—and this is African American-identifying communities and white-identifying communities. And I don’t like to use those terms, which is why I’m with the identifying.
I know that the people want to put themselves or define themselves by certain categories, and that is their right to do so. I wish we wouldn’t do that, but that is what people want to do and they have every right to do so.
And I know that some people, my friends included, are going to be offended by this and have been. I’ve already received feedback from some friends who say that, “You’re a little condescending in that one little passage where you write about my—”
I have a couple of girlfriends who were coming over to the house one night and they encountered some people in the street who looked different than they did. And I thought that, without anybody saying anything to one another, there was this assumption that these people are thinking this about me and they’re thinking I don’t belong here simply on the basis of how I look. And it led to this conversation and a little fracture of, well, why would you think so? No one said anything. This is all projection.
So yes, I’ve already, I was very concerned about my friends reading that and taking it the wrong way and not seeing the help that I’m trying to offer, the healing that I’m trying to offer.
Allen: For those who do choose to read the book “You Are Not Your Race,” what is your hope for what they will walk away with?
Bencosme: I hope that they will walk away with the understanding of the truth of who we are. We are one human race. We are created in the image of our creator. It says so right there in the beginning of our creation story. We are created in his image, one human kind. We are. We are one human race. And from that there was male and female, and then it goes from there. It does not say anything about all these other color groups. It does not. And this is a truth that’s being kept away from people.
Allen: The book is “You Are Not Your Race: Embracing Our Shared Humanity in a Chaotic Age” by Fe Bencosme. It’s out on Nov. 1. Order your copy at Barnes & Noble. And Fe, thank you. We just really appreciate you coming on the show today to share about your work and your passion on this issue.
Bencosme: Thank you so much, Virginia, for giving me the opportunity to share this.
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