• Sometimes I just say: “Yeah, being brown does help me tolerate the heat better. I can take dishes out of a hot oven without wearing oven gloves as well.” (AAP)
When well-meaning friends make discomfiting comments, it’s time to push back.
By
Sushi Das

17 Feb 2017 - 10:57 AM  UPDATED 17 Feb 2017 - 10:57 AM

There are people who love searing temperatures. They’re the ones who wear singlets and thongs, stand chatting in the midday heat and say things like, “Ooh, the hotter the better.”

And there are others who start flagging as soon as the radio forecasts anything over 25 degrees. These are the drenched under-armers, the menopausal hot flashers and the air-con seekers. I belong to the latter group, the weaklings.

Needless to say it’s been a difficult Australian summer thus far. One day, a week or so ago, I found myself complaining about the heat to a few friends who listened silently until one of them said: “But I would have thought someone like you would have…” She didn’t get the chance to finish her comment because I pounced quickly. “No, no, no,” I said sighing inwardly, “I’m afraid it’s not in my DNA.” And we all laughed merrily.

The elephant in the room was my brown skin.

Sushi Das

Generally speaking, I wouldn’t have minded such a comment, after all, I’ve heard it eleventy billion times. But on this occasion it irked me because once again I had had to deftly laugh it off, without making my friend uncomfortable, but simultaneously drive home the point that brown skin does not help you tolerate the heat better.

It was not unlike the numerous other times that friends have said things like: “It’s all right for you, you can handle hot curries.”

The elephant in the room was my Indian background.

It was not unlike the numerous other times that friends have said things like: “It’s all right for you, you can handle hot curries.” 

I remember when I worked as a civil servant in London (the rainy, cold city where I was raised and educated) things were not all that different. A colleague put his face unpleasantly close to my lunchbox, sniffed it loudly and asked: “Last night’s curry, is it?”

I stared at my boiled rice and peas and looked up at him bewildered. “Always have curry for lunch, do you?” he bellowed.

“Yes, yes I do,” I said standing up. “I have curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and I come to work on a sodding elephant.”

I haven’t the foggiest how I mustered the courage to say such a thing, after all, I belong to the weakling tribe. But there it was. At least this time, I actually dragged the elephant into the room – so to speak.

I don’t assume every black person I meet can run like the wind, so I hope other people don’t assume I can tolerate blast-furnace temperatures and unstintingly crunch my way through a Carolina Reaper (sorry, I draw the line well before I get to a Habanero, or even a Bird’s Eye).

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to be harsh about my friends and colleagues. I know there is no deliberate intent to cause offence. And trust me, no offence is taken. There is just an unpleasant odour left hanging in the air: not the offensive smell of a latrine, just the unmistakable smell of the toilet freshener – an attempt at pleasantness to mask a stench.

Comments that hark to racial determinants are always troubling. I don’t assume every black person I meet can run like the wind, so I hope other people don’t assume I can tolerate blast-furnace temperatures and unstintingly crunch my way through a Carolina Reaper (sorry, I draw the line well before I get to a Habanero, or even a Bird’s Eye).

The problem with such discomfiting comments from friends is that they are not meant to hurt, cause offence or belittle. Most of the time, they come from warm-hearted people who genuinely like you. The comments are well intentioned, albeit ill founded, and on the whole, they are trivial in the larger scheme of things.

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So, should they just be ignored or should they be tackled head-on, potentially jeopardizing a friendship, or at least introducing a spikiness that suggests you’re brittle and thin-skinned?

It’s a case of deciding whether to ignore the elephant in the room or point to it, yelling and screaming. As a child I ignored it, fearful of making others feel embarrassed. But I have now lived long enough to know who I am, so I choose to gently lead this elephant into the room and make everyone pat it – nicely.

This is my short guide to elephant patting:

Don’t stay silent

Following a strange comment, say: “Pardon?” (Not curtly, but as if you genuinely didn’t hear it), so that they are forced to repeat it. Or perhaps just raise an eyebrow, rub your chin and say: “Mmmm, not sure about that.” Or turn it around and ask them if they handle the cold better? (If they’re fair skinned). Sometimes I just say: “Yeah, being brown does help me tolerate the heat better. I can take dishes out of a hot oven without wearing oven gloves as well.”

Be polite

Confronting someone with gentle words has greater impact than lashing them with criticism.

Use evidence

Facts drive a point home more firmly. Suggest that the only thing darker skin protects you against is UV rays, not sweating, dehydration or heatstroke.

Use humour

Have a few light-hearted comments up your sleeve at all times, to counter banal comments. I’ve used the going-to-work-on-an-elephant line many times, and it always elicits at least half a smile.

Sushi Das is a journalist and author. Twitter: @sushidas1


 

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