April 25, 2019 | 54° F

LANDINGIN: Genuine vulnerability fosters social solidarity

Opinions Column: A Sophisticated Tho(ugh)t


A month ago, during an intimate conversation with a friend who I have not seen for a couple of months and who I was not particularly close to, asked me, “Can I touch your hair?”

I don’t remember ever being asked this question before in my life and most certainly, I’ve never had this request proposed in the most respectful and empathic manner. At that moment, seeing this beautiful black woman wearing her natural hair asking for my consent to touch my messy jet black hair made me think, is this what solidarity looks and feels like?

As a result of the Philippines’ colonial past and multi-ethnic mixing, my Filipino mother’s silky-smooth brown hair, almond-shaped eyes, light skin and small-frame embodied beauty that is a combination of Spanish, Chinese and indigenous Filipino ancestry.

Even though I am my mother’s daughter, I look nothing like her. I have my father’s slinty eyes, coarse skin, big head, large-frame and hair that goes in so many directions. In many ways, I felt and saw myself darker than my mother, both in skin color and in an internalized self-hate that reflected this global internalization of anti-blackness. Being this mutt of a being, I was not Asian or white enough.

I grew up with my mother and relatives describing my hair with amusement as “kang-kang,” a word they made up and has no correlation to the actual translation to the Tagalog meaning of this word. However, it was a word that was used to describe my messy hair and it was often interchanged with describing my hair as “kinky.”

Years after the move to the United States at age 9, when I slowly became more conscious of issues of American society, I realized that kinky hair is more reflective of black women’s relationship with hair. In many ways I experienced what it feels like to be constantly “taming” my hair.

My negative relationship with my hair began in my childhood. For any excuse of an occasion, my aunties would iron my hair. And when we realized the damage of constantly ironing one’s hair, many of the women in my life moved to more permanent solutions, such as rebonding to keratin treatments. I didn’t really have a choice, but consented to my mother’s suggestions to treat my hair. Instead of making me feel beautiful, I had to go through these hoops to make myself fit a standard that I would never be able to reach.

But in a blessing in disguise in what seemed at the time, for a 17-year-old high school student, the most visible attack of my existence, I was diagnosed with alopecia areata, which is an autoimmune disease that causes a person’s immune system to mistakenly attack their hair follicles, resulting in patches of hair loss. For half a year, I was receiving monthly injections on my head and inconclusive autopsy reports. At the same time, I was masking my condition with wigs and hats. Eventually, I got fed up with this whole situation and I shaved my head. Miraculously, my hair started growing back.

Four years later my hair grew back, after years of slowly learning to love my body.

My friend’s words rang heavily in my soul because something that I was taught to hate is being challenged. She was interested in my hair in a positive way. I was letting someone’s different opinion of me further my path towards accepting my worth.

Having the courage to be “you,” does not equate to feeling connected with society. And when one feels that they’re not connected to society, then one feels disconnected to this world, to nature and to the things beyond our social organizations.

Developing this reservoir of strength and pride in oneself is crucial, but it’s only half of the story. To truly feel connected and to feel worth of love it starts by fostering loving connections, and perhaps that means challenging certain personal relationships, communities and ourselves. By reaching beyond ourselves we embrace people for being visible and vulnerable.

When we practice empathy by listening to people’s story. We develop an understanding that there are many people who are visibly laboring under oppression and marginalization. Asking how are you, not as a courtesy, but to sit down and mindfully hear one’s story is radical. This is how we start solidarity.

In his book, "The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance," theorist and activist Franco Berardi furthered my understanding of solidarity that, “Like love, solidarity is not about altruism: it is about the pleasure of sharing the breath and space of the other. Love is the ability to enjoy myself thanks to your presence, to your eyes. This is solidarity”.

Rae Landingin is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies with minors in art history and digital, communication, information and media. Her column, “A Sophisticated Tho(ugh)t,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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Rae Landingin

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