Dark-Skinned, Flamboyant And Confident

True Stories
A young girl carried by her mother standing next to a care

Hi guys, I want to introduce you to Reeba Cherian, an amazing woman who I’ve known since I was a teenager. I remember the first day I saw her, I was totally in awe! She was so regal in every way. Over the years she has been a huge inspiration to me– the most inspiring being her attitude towards life. I’ve wanted to share her story for a long time! Here are excerpts from a text chat we did recently, where she shared some of her experiences with colourism and discrimination. I’ll admit, I teared up in a few places! I want to applaud her for sharing, and I know there must be so many others who have been in similar situations and can feel encouraged by her story.

Me: I’ve waited so long to talk about your story. This is exciting! Tell me everything!

Reeba: I am a dark-skinned Indian who was born and brought-up in Singapore. My father was the Superintendent of Police in the Singapore Police force, and my mother, an efficient homemaker. I studied in Singapore  from kindergarten to the 3rd standard and during that time I went through severe skin colour discrimination. At the time I didn’t realise or understand this, until I returned to India and joined school in Nagercoil, Kanya Kumari District, Tamilnadu.

When I was studying in Singapore, most of my classmates were Chinese and fair Malays. I was the only dark-skinned person in my class.  And I want to share some of my experiences:

  • my desk and chair in class were kept a little apart from the others.
  • if any of  my classmates forgot a pencil, ruler or eraser, and they had to borrow from me. they would place their handkerchief on their palm and ask me to keep the item on the handkerchief. They didn’t want to touch my skin.
  • they never included me in their games.

In my school in Singapore,  my classmates  never called me by my name. I was addressed as “Black Pig” or ” Dirty Pig”.

Skipping rope games were very popular those days and by chance, if they needed a second person to hold one end of the skipping rope, they would ask me to join. Later when someone else passed by, they would ask me to leave the game, and the Chinese or the fair Malay would wipe the handle of the skipping rope before holding it.

During break time, my classmates  would be playing on the swings and the see-saws. When  I went to join them they would jump down and walk away. So I ended up playing alone but too small to feel lonely.

I just kept wondering why they walked away and why they wiped the things that I had touched. I was too small to understand.

It was only when we moved back to India and I went to school, I found that most of my classmates had the same skin colour or were darker than me. They all welcomed me, the new student in their school. They were all enamoured by my accent and dressing! They all wanted to be friends with me! I felt totally loved!

Slowly, I started to understand that what I had experienced in Singapore was discrimination based on race and skin colour.

As I grew older in school, I was so angry. Not at my Singapore classmates, but at the teachers who allowed that to happen to me. Why did they allow my desk and chair to be apart from the rest ??? It was their fault. They could have corrected it, and things may have been different. Sadly, they did nothing and I got ostracised.

Me: Did you ever talk with your parents or adults about these experiences?

Reeba: No, I didn’t know how to confide, so I just  bottled up everything and I became very stubborn and a rebel . It was like I was building up a defensive mechanism to survive. 

You know something really painful? 

In my school in Singapore,  my classmates  never called me by my name. I was addressed as “Black Pig” or ” Dirty Pig”.

Me: I’m so sorry you had to go through this! I can’t imagine the trauma!

Reeba: It’s ok! That’s why I became so sensitive and caring and loving. I always have to save the underdog.

Me: How old were you when you came back to India?

Reeba: Nine years old.

Me: So in India did you experience any discrimination?

Reeba: 

In school I was thoroughly loved. My big family of uncles and cousin brothers teased me mercilessly about my colour, but always with so much love. Not once did I feel hurt or insulted. I also had terrific parents. So I grew up  strong and self-confident, with absolutely no complexes.

Unfortunately, the next nightmare started when I reached marriageable age. No one wanted a black-skinned bride. As a friend, as a sister– it’s fine. I was not good enough to marry.

They don’t see the good heart or how talented or educated that person is. You are black, so you are ugly!

As I said earlier, I had wonderful parents, so when I got to be 19 or 20, marriage proposals started coming in (as per the custom of arranged marriage in India) and they would fall apart because I was dark-skinned. My parents sat me down one day and explained to me that the sad part in Kerala (that’s where I am from) is that when they see a dark-skinned person, they automatically perceive that person as black and ugly. They don’t see the good heart or good features, or how talented or educated that person is. “You are black, so you are ugly”! My parents explained it wasn’t my fault. Just a lousy, hurtful culture. 

So, a couple of prospective grooms came to see me. I really liked them. I think they liked me too, but they didn’t have the guts to stand against their parents because the minute their parents saw that I was so dark, they didn’t want to move forward. 

And it’s not as if the grooms I saw were fair. They were all as dark as me, and some were even darker. They would say things like, “We ourselves are dark, and marrying a dark girl– how will the children be????!!!!! They will be so dark!!!!!

Me: I’m stunned and speechless! It’s literally unbelievable that anyone could do this to another person, but having also grown up in India, I’ve seen it too.

Reeba: Another thing was about the colour of my clothes. Most people would tell me that because I was dark,  I should be wearing whites and off-whites, light browns, light greens and so on, but my personality was of course totally different.

I was flamboyant! I loved my magentas and purples, parrot green and copper-sulphate blue.

The beautiful part is that my parents gave me the free will to choose my colours and to wear whatever I wanted. They said, “If you feel good in that bright colour, carry yourself with confidence”. So, I grew up so comfortable with wearing all kinds of vibrant colours. Unfortunately, a lot of people thought that I was trying to seek attention, but I wasn’t. That was just me– my individuality. 

You see, I had grown up in Singapore where I saw a range of styles and colours of clothing and shoes. Styles which came to India so many years later. It’s like my exposure to TV in Singapore. I saw movies and cartoons and music and fashion shows early in life.

But TV came to India only when Doordharshan began years later. I think I would have been in my late twenties at that point.

My parents said, “if you feel good in that bright colour, carry yourself with confidence”.

My older sister Reena, who is seven years my senior, was fair and beautiful. Whenever we went house visiting in Kerala, people would ask my parents how come Reena was so fair and I turned out so dark.

In Singapore, I have memories of my sister’s fascination for matching footwear for the clothes she wore. We grew up like that. For all our outfits, we had the same coloured sandals or shoes, but when we came to India, they were not available. Coloured shoes only came recently.

Fast forward to becoming adults, getting married, and about 15 or 20 years ago, there was a ‘Diwali Night’ at one of our clubs. As you know, Diwali means the Festival of Lights and we wear bright coloured clothes.

I had a beautiful red and black salwar. I was all set to wear it and got  the jewellery to match it. And just a few days before the event, I was shopping in the market and you won’t believe it, but in one of the shoe shops I saw this red pair of open sandals with flowers in the front and straps at the back. I was so excited ! Perfect match to my outfit.

So I bought the shoes –  wore them, went to the club and they were such a big hit! All the young girls came and said, “Aunty, where did you get these shoes from, they are so amazing!”

Those famous red shoes! | Image © Reeba Cherian

But , there were a few people who said, “She has worn those red sandals just for attention. She was deprived of attention, that’s why she is wearing all these vibrant colours and shoes to match!” I was hurt, but I overcame it. 

Now, 20 years later, everyone’s going to  malls and buying shoes and sandals to match their clothes! So,  if I was seeking attention back then, then what about them now? Well, I just smile to myself. I suppose I was way-ahead of  the people here. 

Reeba & Sam Cherian in 2020 | Image © Reeba Cherian

Talking about marriage, mine was an arranged one. Despite objections, he said YES to me. He claims it was love at first sight! I have been married to Sam for 37 years now. He gave me the freedom and space to grow. I evolved to be a successful wife, mother, grandmother, singer and wedding planner. My fantastic  family, my wonderful friends and the loving and supportive community I live in have all contributed to my success story. My life is my testimony!

Me: Thank you so much for sharing your amazing story! Would you like to say something to those that will read about you?

Reeba: I hope my story inspires and encourages each one of you that are facing skin colour or any other form of discrimination. Don’t be bogged down by negativity. Always remember that you are precious and life is worth living. God bless!


If you would like to share your story on this website, please get in touch with me here.