Six years ago, I met one of my dearest white friends. We met in a new mommies group. We both had newborns. She was talking about Johnson & Johnson’s baby oil.
I looked at her. She has everything I want. Confidence, charisma, beauty and brains.
“…and who uses Vaseline? Especially on their baby! It’s made from PA-troll-eeee-um. You might as well stick that baby in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP spill!”
I listened intently but I was stunned. I had been slathering my newborn son in some sort of organic aloe, vegan beeswax, sunflower seed oil with calming camomile. I knew that my son was going to be alright. I’m not going to expose him to that!
I recently went to one of my acupuncturists healers. Her name is Sun Corn (or some sort of a celestial being plant). She’s white and magical. I asked her if I could charge my cell phone on a plug…she said “let’s put that with the receptionist. We don’t want those cell phone radiation vibes toxifying our space. We need to keep our chi balanced.
While she was cupping my back after a reiki sesh, she said “Isn’t it great? I wish someone would cup me.”
I responded, “Oh yeah, I have a guy downtown who does cupping. He only charges $10 for cupping. He’s Chinese…. Oh but I think he uses baby oil.”
GASP. (You would have thought I said that he clubbed baby seals).
“Woah. I can’t. I recently got a massage in Cuba and I was like, ‘oh wait!?!? What is she slathering on me!?!? It’s like petroleum or something. Nooooo!”
I love my dear well meaning white friends.
I think of the kasamas in the Philippines who are being displaced by mining companies. And all of our kasamas who are losing their land because of pipelines and drilling and spills….
But then. Then I go to my office and I talk with my wise colleague.
He asked, “Did your family use Vicks vapor rub? Growing up, my family always had it in the house.”
I exclaimed, “Yes!!!!!”
I was reminded of a long lost memory that I had totally forgotten. I had taken Vick’s Vaporub for granted. It was such a staple in our house. That and Vaseline. They were always on my Lola and Lolo’s dresser. Well loved jars.
I said, “Well I get this non-petroleum jelly version now.”
And he said, “Yeah my wife gets it too. It’s not the same.”
My colleague’s from an immigrant/migrant family too.
I thought about it. And I started to obsess about Vaseline and Vic’s vaporub. I talked and processed. I did web searches for “poetry” and “vaporub.” I found an “ode to vaporub.”
I started to question myself. Have I been living a lie? I buy all these moisturizers and tinctures. Holistic and herbal. Organic and non-toxic. No GMOs. To heal my wounds. To bring me closer to Mother Earth. And I’ve been engulfed by the holistic healthy living – well being industrial complex.
Am I trying to be white? Are these lotions mimicking the oppressive whitening creams that Filipinx use to lighten their skin so as to appear white? Maybe it’s not about whiteness. There are blue collar and/ or working class whites that use Vaseline and or Vic’s.
I was recently texting with one of my best friends who has really dry hands from his trade. I remember going to Kiehls with him go get their super strength hand cream like 12 years ago.
Me: My hands r so dry: what do U use for your hands ? Have u tried O’keefes? Looking for suggestions?
Him: Sorry to hear that 😕 I use Aveeno.
Me: U like that better than kiehls hand cream?
Him: They’re pretty different. The Kiehls is really thick.
Me: Is the Kiehls good? Worth it?
Him: Meh, it’s expensive. Vaseline works about the same
Me: Perfect answer thanks!
Him: Try soaking your hands under hot water, pat them dry and then put on lotion…
So I went to put on my Alba Botanica Un-Petroleum Jelly but the natural oil ingredient had gone rancid because it is 6 years old. I ordered a new one on Amazon and got the new non-petroleum in 2 days because of PRIME membership — it didn’t solve my problem.
I ordered the Kiehls. And it still did not fill that void.
I thought, “Maybe I need to get that Aesop one at Barney’s?”
I ordered a sage balm from Indigenous people in Arizona.
I was in a friend’s office yesterday. She had a bottle of Vaseline on her desk. I started a conversation about it. She says that she went through the same journey as me. And she’s back on Vaseline.
Today, I was in Lot Less on Chambers Street and I saw a small jar of Vaseline. I picked it up. I second guessed and re-thought about buying it. Eventually I bought it.
It was such a cold frigid day. Before I even walked out the store. I dipped my hand into the jar and slathered some on. I felt immediate relief. It felt like coming home. Like forgiving my mom for being different than my white friend’s parents. Forgiving my family for being brown and not in the Brady bunch or Full House or whatever mass media capitalism brainwashes me to believe. Forgiving myself for my internalized racism.
I put that Vaseline on with pride. To go back to my roots. To dig my heels in and say, “I ain’t going anywhere.” The Vaseline brought me back together and healed the wounds. I owned it. I owned myself and my heritage. Yes–I understand the contradiction between the petroleum and the displacement… and the cause of forced migration. That my purchase is directly leading to the demise of my people…and so is Kiehls and so is distancing myself via a yuppi-ness that I’m not. I don’t have to be luxurious. I can use westernized medicine and get down with my Filipinx kasamas who work in western medicine.
And maybe this seems like making a big deal about a small household product…but then again so is selling an artisanal healing balm made up of organic reclaimed artichoke hearts blessed in wild horse placentas with sun bleached organic heritage purple basil and sprinkled with a thyme in an Italian mason jar redux (that is cooler than the mason jars because they were used in the original root cellar of the first Italian migrants to the USA) that are now being sold at Homegoods.
I come back to myself . I don’t have to chase, run and spend. I can slow down by not searching. By looking around and seeing what had been around this whole time. I am fulfilled. And I can understand a tad bit more. There is wisdom in this and I don’t have to see a reiki master for it. The clarity is within. Yes, imperialism and capitalism brought us Vaseline and forced migration…and we struggle on together.
*I still haven’t put a drop of Vaseline on my son….I’ll keep assessing and struggle through this. Stripping myself of my semi-feudal tendencies and liberalisms.
Arsenia Reilly-Collins (they, them theirs) Brooklyn mom, wife, kasama, organizer, activist, agit-prop theatre maker, radical, Filipinx-Irish, hungry ghost, vegan, anti-racist NYCHRP cultural committee member. Twitter