I’m very proud to share the story of my mother-in-law, Johshy Tewes and her experiences with colourism and racism. Marrying into this family and getting to know my husband has opened my eyes to the many unique experiences that people of mixed-race heritage experience. It’s been the basis of our series – mixed : Life Stories.
I hope you are encouraged to know that you have the power to break the cycle of what you have experienced through treating others with love and equality.
Born in a small town, in South India, the fourth child of eight children (the third daughter), to a mom whose skin was as fair as Horlicks and a dad whose skin was as swarthy as 90% cocoa chocolate, I was surprisingly oblivious to the skin colour issue that was prevalent in my country. My father named me Jhansi, after the Queen, Jhansi ki Rani, but after a series of mispronunciations and misspellings in school, it changed to ‘Johshy’. Our parents loved all eight of us children equally and I did not experience any discrimination based on my skin colour by my parents, even though I was probably the closest in skin colour to my dad among all my siblings.
I do remember, however, feeling a bit different, as a child, when my dad bought dark-coloured clothes for my sisters, and light-coloured clothes for me. He once bought them earrings with red stones in them, but my earrings had white stones. He was always a well-dressed man, and was very conscious about what would look good and what wouldn’t, and I know the reason he bought me different things was because he felt I would look good in them. But those were the only times, as a child that I felt different because of my skin colour.
As I grew older, I slowly started to notice that skin colour sometimes affected the way people viewed me. Funnily enough, my experience was mostly positive. I attended a convent school, and I remember a particular Math teacher of mine used to be very fond of me, and she had a dislike for fair-skinned people. She used to make me write the phrase ‘God Sees Me’ in all my notebooks, and was very kind to me.
Not all my memories associated with skin colour were positive though. I remember not going out in the sun, as instead of becoming more brown, my skin would take on a greyish shade, which I didn’t like. I also remember, when certain people used to visit our family, all of us kids would line up to greet them, and they would comment on how all my sisters looked like my mom, but when they reached me, they would ask, ‘Who is this?’ and it would make me very upset. In school, whenever we had dramas, I would always be picked for the role of a boy, but never a girl. The role of the heroine would always be played by a fair-skinned girl. I also remember that as a teenager, like most young women, I used to wonder what kind of a man I would marry, but I also had very low expectations as to what that man would look like. I knew even then that most good-looking men wanted a fair bride, and I remember thinking that I would love my husband no matter what he looked like and I wouldn’t let looks get in the way.
When I was old enough to get married, a young German man came to visit my dad’s orphanage and he seemed quite struck by me – including my skin colour. Later, that same young man went on to ask my dad for my hand in marriage. I travelled all the way to Germany, 21 years old, a girl who had been so protected by my dad that I could never walk to the market alone, was now travelling across the world alone! My first experience in Germany was special. Even there, I did not feel any discrimination or bias because of my skin colour. As there were very few brown-skinned people there, I was more of a novelty. I made some very close friends and my skin colour actually made me feel quite special rather than looked down upon.
However, when my would-be Father-in-law heard about my fiancé Jochen’s plans to marry me, he refused to give his permission. Jochen was firm in his decision, and it took some letter correspondence (translated, of course) between my father and his father to sort out the whole issue. To this day, I still don’t know what the letters contained, but after that, the marriage plans continued!
We moved to India, got married and had four kids. Each child had a different skin colour. When my first, a son was born, he was so fair that people had a hard time believing that he was my own son, and they used to look at me judgingly when I used to take him out on my own – as though I was a nanny or something. When our second child, a daughter was born, she had much darker skin, and people would sometimes comment on it. However, my husband and I loved them each equally and we loved them for who they were.
When the kids grew up, and on our visits to Germany, depending on where we were in the country, we would sometimes get looked at strangely on the roads or in shops people would follow us to make sure we were not stealing anything. Those were unpleasant experiences based on skin colour and ethnicity in Germany. In India, the kids’ skin colour was mostly appreciated, so they didn’t really have any trouble with that when they grew up here. Being married to a German has definitely influenced the way I feel about my skin colour, and I’m glad that I grew up in a positive environment with people who loved and supported me for who I was, rather than what I looked like. I realise that not everyone is so fortunate.
As told by Johshy Tewes and edited by Zippora Madhukar.
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