In an era of racialized theories and antiracist activism, race essentialism is hoisted upon Americans. Even when increasing numbers of people report belonging to more than one category, it is time to realize that everyone’s skin has a color and it is just one small part of who we are.

Welcomed back to the Author Hour Podcast. I’m your host Hussein Al-Baiaty and my next guest is Fe Bencosme, here to celebrate and talk about her new book, You’re Not Your Race. Let’s get into it.

All right everyone, I’m here with my friend Fe and I’m super excited because this conversation is about to lead us through some amazing stories. Fe, how’s it going today? I’m super excited for your book.

Fe Bencosme: Thanks Hussein and I’m about as excited as you are, things are going well so far.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Can you give our listeners a little bit of who you are or a personal background if you will, and lead us all the way up to getting into high school, which we’ll talk about in a few, and then we’ll go further into your book.

Fe Bencosme: My story begins in New York City where I was born. I won’t tell you what year.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: That’s okay.

Fe Bencosme: But my parents were from the Caribbean. They were from two different islands, my father from the Dominican Republic. My mother from Saint Croix, which is in the US Virgin Islands. And when they were alive, I used to joke all the time, “Couldn’t you guys find a mate on your own island? Because it’s complicated things.”

Every time I visit family, I have two families in two different parts of the Caribbean to visit and in fact, in a few weeks, I’ll be going home, and I first go to the Dominican Republic. I stay there for a bit and then I hop over to Saint Croix and stay there for a bit.

I was about a year old, I’m thinking — yeah, I was about a year old — when my folks, for reasons I wish I had asked them, decided to go back to the Caribbean and initially, it was the Dominican Republic. I spent part of my childhood there and then we ended up in the Virgin Islands and I don’t know, there was a lot of back and forth between the two before we finally settled in Saint Croix for the majority of my childhood, for my adolescence, part of it anyway. I did go back to New York City where I attended high school in Chelsea.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: That’s amazing. So you grew up, I mean obviously, you grew up moving around a little bit, trying to find your footing and then of course, you get moved all the way up to a new world, it would seem like a new world.

For me, in a way, a similar situation. After the Gulf War, I moved to the United States after a refugee camp and so that was my beginning. But I was much younger, I was about eight years old.

So you arrived in high school, what was that experience like for you? What shocked you about transitioning into now an American world?

Fe Bencosme: Well, the Virgin Islands is a US territory, a US possession. So my mother, she was born the year that the inhabitants of that island became US citizens, where they officially received citizenship, and had lived for a number of years in no man’s land.

The Virgin Islands was a Danish possession for 200 years until 1917, when it was purchased by the United States. So I grew up on a beautiful island, a lush island, my playground was outside our front door and we had no television. There was no television station on the island.

In order to get that kind of entertainment, we actually tuned into a TV station in Puerto Rico that came out of Puerto Rico which was nearby, and then we had to tune into the translation on the radio. It was interesting and there was really just one house in the neighborhood with a TV, and all of these different families would gather around the TV to watch Cold Check.

But arriving in the US and just finding TV, or I should say returning to the US because that’s where I was born, returning to the US and finding TV and TV was 24/7, and I discovered black and white films and musicals and it was mesmerizing.

That is my strongest memory of coming back to the US. And then going to high school and riding the MTA and riding it by myself, and going to school every day two hours each way, and then the train system eventually becoming a big part of my life because it’s how you get around in New York City, from borough to borough, or at least it was.

America’s Preoccupation with Race

Hussein Al-Baiaty: That’s so powerful. So you grow up there, you start making some friends and you’re hit with this obsession that we sadly have in America with race, and it’s like a blanket that tries to cover every aspect of our lives. I didn’t really experience what was happening right in front of me until I got older too.

When did it hit you? When did you realize that like, “Wow, people around here are obsessed with something and I’m trying to figure out why?”

Fe Bencosme: As you were asking that question, I was thinking about it, and even in the process of writing the book, I tried to pinpoint when was it really that I latched on to this preoccupation going on around me.

I don’t think it was until much later in life as an adult because as young people, or me anyway, these things are going on around you and you have a sense that they’re happening but you’re not really sure what it is and what’s going on.

There was, and I talk about this in the book, there was that one incident in our neighborhood where I was going off to school one day and someone had painted some profanities in front of our house, and I don’t know if that was the first time I heard that awful N-word but I know that it was – I don’t remember being totally disoriented by it.

It seems to me that going out of the country, returning back to the Caribbean, and then coming back to the US in the late 90s, that’s when it was. I don’t know what happened but it seems like that’s when this preoccupation, this fascination people had with where you’re from and not just me but just where everybody was from, that’s when it became glaringly apparent, and I don’t know if that’s just, again, because I was just older and more alert to things going on around me. I wonder.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah and like you said, I too didn’t really start to grasp things — it’s interesting, because you talk about in your book how 9/11 impacted you and what was going on around that time and for me, I think that was the identifier. That was the first time I really had to process what was happening around me because I was a Muslim, Arab dude in high school.

So it was now in front of your face and now I’m getting — I got into fights, things were happening and it was so abrupt. I had to process it so differently than my peers. So tell me about that time, around 9/11 because I know, which is interesting because your world is travel and you ended up traveling to the Middle East. I want to share with our audience what was going on around that time for you, and how did it start framing this world of race that you point to and how we see things?

Fe Bencosme: Until 9/11, I had been working as a publicist for a travel related business, travel related company and because of the events of 9/11, the travel industry was very impacted and I very soon after lost my job. I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with selling vacations or the idea of luxurious vacations anyway, especially after 9/11, when I was still expected to carry out that part of my job.

I checked in with my contacts in the travel world to make sure that everybody was okay. I don’t know, something just seemed very contrived about it. The world was falling apart and here I was supposed to be, continue being, this travel publicist as if everything was okay. We were supposed to be selling bubble baths in hotels to get away from the stress of it all.

I had been to the Middle East, I had been to Cairo, right before the events of 9/11. I was there on work related business, just totally mesmerized by the diversity of humanity that I saw there. Cairo, El Khayreya, it’s just this – I mean, you probably know, I don’t if you’ve ever been there, but it’s this amazing crossroad of cultures. It was absolutely amazing to witness.

So I remember being there and just having to do the professional thing and be guided by my colleagues and go where they say or said that I should go, and I’m just a curious person anyway. So in the back of my mind, I was thinking, “Oh my gosh, I’d love to come back here and see, really see this place without having to be tethered to a guide,” so to speak.

I’ve always traveled without a guide. So when I got home and things changed and it was, “Oh my gosh, what do you do now?” My first thought was go to the Dominican Republic, spend some time there with friends and family that I hadn’t had been spending much time with, for obvious reasons.

I was working back in the US and then I thought, “Oh my goodness, I’ve already done that. I’m going to go to the Middle East. Now is the time, there is so much to see and learn, and especially now.” Because we seem hell-bent on obliterating this place and I don’t understand why because my first trip there, I didn’t encounter anything like what I was told I would, and I’m reluctant to say, by the media, but that is what it is. Yeah, that’s what it was, yeah.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, it’s so profound because my experience, I haven’t been to Cairo but some of my family members have and we actually, in Iraq, what was interesting is in Iraq, I mean, this is long before I was even born, a lot of Egyptians would come to Iraq and work. They’re like migrant workers. And so, there was a beautiful relationship between Egypt and Iraq.

Unfortunately, politically, it’s always been funky with all the neighboring countries, but people wise, like the culture within people, it’s just like, there’s this saying in the – I’m sure you heard this in the Middle East, that Iraq is like the father of the world and Egypt is the mother of the world, right? I always love that because it just shows like, there’s this family orientation around the Middle East.

Sadly, however over the years, political and what have you, that family dynamic became really fragmented but the people have nothing but love towards one another. It’s sad when you elevate into a political realm that things are weird. And things are just like, “Oh, they’re ancient and problems and things,” and you’re just like, “No man, but I’m cool with these people, like, I don’t really care if they’re Christian, I don’t really care if they’re Shia, I don’t really care.”

 And it wasn’t until that, growing up in America, that 9/11 and then the years after that, that people started asking Shia Muslim or if I was a Sunni or if I was a Muslim at all. And I’m like, “Where is this coming from?” This idea of dividing and it’s like, “Are you this and what does that belief?” I always felt so weird responding to that because I didn’t –

My parents never taught me that I was different than Muslims, you know what I mean? I was just like, “Oh, we all pray to the Most High.” That was it. Of course, I knew there were differences, but the differences were so small that the similarities always were much brighter too.

Fe Bencosme: And they’re there but you just don’t focus on them, you don’t fixate on them. For lack of sounding like a conspiracist, but I think that there is a way of pushing people to fixate on these things for devious purposes, to deviousness, and that is a shame.

In this age of diversity, equity and inclusion — by the way, I’m a former educator, that was my career after I left the travel industry. I became an educator and I was in the classroom until 2015 and speaking to some of my colleagues who are still teaching, they just feel that all of the diversity and equity and inclusion training that they’re going through now has actually forced them to notice things in a way that they hadn’t noticed them before.

To the extent that they may have noticed them before, and none of them say that this is making them fixate on this aspect of another person, none of it has been productive so to speak. If anything, it’s made them and they feel like others around them more anxious and more insecure and vulnerable, and I think things, when you have those kinds of conditions, people can be very easily forced into doing things that they may not have done otherwise.

Defining Race

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Very true. So in your book, you talk about race, is it even real? Defining what that means. And I think what you are saying right now around this idea of being uncomfortable, being pushed to think about things that you didn’t necessarily think about, and now it is framing certain ideologies and it is making people uncomfortable to even talk about these things openly, right?

So how do you define race and how, if there is even a definition, right? Because reading through your book, you talk about culture, you talk about nationalism, you talk about what each one of those mean. I’d like for you to share with our audience that idea and where race doesn’t really fit in that conversation.

Fe Bencosme: Well, race as we use it more commonly, it is grounded in geography. If you are from the African continent, then you are this. If you’re from the European continent, then you are this, and so on and so forth, and if you’re from the Asian continent, then you’re that, but we know it’s not that simple. Even within these monoliths so to speak, there’s diversity in the way people present, physically, the phenotypes.

So race as we use it, it’s boiled down to these little boxes that we put people in but really, from what I understand from a scientific perspective, from a biological perspective, there is only the human race. There is only the human race and of that race, then we have male, female. I think you call those species if I am not mistaken. So yes, I don’t know of a biological black race or a biological white race.

As far as I know, these things are non-existent. Nationality, yes, as I explained in the book, I don’t think I am incorrect in this assessment. The nationality is a political identity, it’s an identity that is put upon a people for the purpose of protection by government for allowing for the freedom of movement from country to country, providing you have the requisite passports and visas of course, but nationality is a collective identity on a people that they share through common traditions and values and beliefs and customs, and things like that.

Ethnicity, and maybe I should have brought that up right after race, but I think this ethnicity is probably what we are thinking of when we think of race. And this ethnicity comes, again, it’s something that comes out of culture and shared customs and shared languages or a shared language, I should say. These things are all different. I hope that makes sense.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, no, it makes a lot of sense to me at least. I think what you did so beautifully is you broke down the idea of race and how it’s not the thing to use to identify someone. It’s like yeah, you can obviously — like let’s say when I say I am from Iraq, that has a blanket, that is an umbrella of okay, there is a region, there is a political blanket of that and what that means.

Usually there is a faith and a language. And then you go into ethnicity and then there’s the north and south, right? As the more you go further into it but to say that, “I am a brown race,” it takes the beauty out of what it means to be a human. It’s over-simplifying our remarkable complexities as human beings and as human beings in communities.

It dilutes it down to what you say later on, this couple, a millimeter or two skin tone, it’s very frustrating for those who — I don’t identify with my skin color. I identify with my passions, my purpose, my language, the beauty, the things that I got to grow up with, poetry, art, my father’s heritage and my mother’s poetry, whatever it is, those are the things that I identify with, you know what I mean? My language.

But I can’t be boiled down to what my skin color looks like, and then that gets to determine X, Y and Z about me, right?

Fe Bencosme: It determines how you supposedly think and how you supposedly view the world and how you supposedly view yourself, how you view yourself alongside others, either others who are like you from similar community where you have these shared values, and how you view yourself against people who are not from that community, who have a different set of traditions and customs and language. It is a terrible thing.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: No, it really is and you’re a 100% right because later on in your book, you talk about how, sadly, these are mechanisms that the very powerful, no matter if you agree or not, this is not, however you look at it, it is fine. From my perspective, it is one of those mechanisms that is sadly used to divide and conquer. Obviously, I’m from the Middle East, man, I have seen it, right? I know it, I hear about it, I have seen it.

This has been happening long before I was born. Sadly, it probably will exists long after I’m gone. However, we talk about these political polarizations happening, let’s say just here in America, and if we are constantly utilizing race to put people who would normally agree on pretty much everything else as far as life, family, home, the right to get work and provide and the right to pursue happiness.

Whatever it is, those things I feel like most people would agree on are the freedoms, the thing that we actually do enjoy in our world. However, pitting people against one another to create, in a way, chaos is sadly the root of what the problem is, when you say something like, “Oh, this is a racial thing,” and it is much deeper than that. The roots go very deep and you really go into your book talking about how these things have transformed the lay of the land.

I guess what I am trying to say is, how has race in a way, this idea of race, how has it divided us and how can we be liberated from that idea?

Fe Bencosme: When I started out writing this book, if I am totally honest, I really wanted to – let me back up a little bit. I am thinking about the summer of 2020 when a lot of us witnessed the death of George Floyd, right there on live television, and the riots that followed after and just the things that were being said and done to one another. My thought was, “My gosh, if the people in the streets rioting only knew of their true identity, where their humanity comes from, they would not be committing these things against one another.”

I wanted to bring a message of Christ to the population, to society, to whoever would read it, but I know that you can’t always speak to people in those terms and get them to listen. People think, “Oh gosh, she’s going to go all Jesus on me and freak out” and “No, I don’t want to hear that.” So I tried writing in a way that did not use the discourse of Christ but still maintained the message, and that is when we focus on our true identity, which is that we are God’s creation.

No matter what someone says to you or about you, you are this beautiful creation. If you understood that and if you appreciated that, none of the other labels that people try to put on you would matter to you. There would be nothing that would oppress you, so to speak. Am I making sense?

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, 100%. I mean, I think your message all in all is that we’re all interconnected and here to bring a peaceful perspective to what’s happening currently in our world. But it comes from your experience of having grown up in America and seeing these things unfold, but also your travels. You’ve travelled literally pretty much all over the world, which gives you this other lens that you’ve seen humanity through. You have seen the kindness, you have seen people help you in times of peril.

Fe Bencosme: [In times] of need.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Of need, yeah, so you’ve seen our capabilities as humans go way beyond our skin tone, and it is very evident in how you speak and how you articulated these ideas in your book, and I just thought that that was really profound. However you want to convey your message, whether it be through Jesus or Mohammed or Buddha or whoever we choose to look up to for those ideals, and peacemaking and peace offering and creating a more transparent level of human connection is really profound and powerful.

So I personally, I just want to congratulate you because it is ridiculously hard to write a book. That’s something I know because I have experienced that. So congratulations, this is a huge thing. On top of that, you opened up a subject that is very hard to talk about. It is touchy, it is not, like you said, it is something that people don’t want to hear about sometimes or they brush on it.

But this is exactly why we need your work and your voice and your stories and your experiences, because it helps lend that conversation, move it in a positive trajectory. Perhaps these books can land in schools that can help your colleagues, your fellow colleagues, help the kids in those classrooms see something more than what they usually see on television, or they usually see on social media, which again, is very profound.

Because your book is not just for you, it comes through you and it came at this point for a particular reason.

Fe Bencosme: For a reason, yeah. And you hit on something that I hope to achieve as a result of writing this book. Yes, I do want people to look at each other with a little bit more love, to look at themselves with a little bit more love and aspire to the higher things. To higher and better thoughts, to beautiful thoughts, to good thoughts, to let those things guide you through your day, through your life.

You’re happier and you’ll be much more successful if you are focused on the beautiful versus focused on the ugly, and that is something that’s happening in our schools right now. It is very diabolical, we are forcing our children to direct their gaze on things that are just not beautiful, not beautiful at all, and that’s frightening. That is very scary but yes, one of the things I hope to achieve with this book is that it will land in every school library.

Okay, yeah, I know I stand to benefit from that but believe you me, if there is any monetary benefit from it, it will go right back into something else that I hope to do. I’m in Houston and in November of ’23, I hope to make it onto the Houston Independent School District Board, because I would like to impact curriculum to the extent that I can, so that we can take that gaze, our children’s gaze, and redirect it back to the beautiful.

To what is true, to what is good, for the betterment of society. This trajectory that we’re on right now it’s no, no we can’t.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, 100% and I mean, I love the intention behind — of course this is fulfilling to you but of course, our communities benefit from this as well, our future can benefit from this, our kids can benefit from this. So thank you so much for putting your time, energy, resources and of course, your vulnerabilities, your experiences into this book. I am very excited for you.

I am moved and I am inspired by your work. Thank you for sharing this, truly. Thank you for taking the time to hang out with me today. Your book is called, You Are Not Your Race: Embracing Our Shared Humanity in a Chaotic Age, beautiful title. Besides checking out your book, where can people find you Fe?

Fe Bencosme: They can find me at Fe Bencosme, they can find me on social media at the same handle as well.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: That’s great. Are you also on LinkedIn?

Fe Bencosme: I’m on LinkedIn as well, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, the whole gamut, Facebook, yeah.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: That’s so great, you’re well connected. I love that. Well, thanks again for joining me today. I really appreciate you.

Fe Bencosme: Shukran ya, Hussein.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: ‘Afwan, not a problem.

Fe Bencosme: I thought I’d show off a little bit of my Arabic there.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: I love it. Shukran ya, Fe. Alfer.

Fe Bencosme: Ma Salama.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Ma Salama.