Prison Radio
Izell Robinson

I am Izell Robinson, Minnesota inmate number 210006. Today, I wanted to present a piece in honor of Women’s History Month. And this piece is a readings response to Amy Tan’s “Fish Cheeks.” The title of this is “Trapped by Race: A Response to Tan’s Fish Cheeks.”

Amy Tam writes a potently raw story as her title “Fish Cheeks” serves as a symbol of her own embarrassment. In this essay, she introduces vivid elements of her Chinese upbringing that conflicted with how she wanted to be viewed by non-Chinese people. It’s clear that this conflict caused her sadness and embarrassment as she says, “Dinner threw me deeper in despair. I wanted to disappear, and I was stunned into silence for the rest of the night.”

The vernacular that Tan uses is entrenched in emotion as she’s trying to impress an American boy why being riddled with shame of her Chinese cultural customs, and this formulates her inner conflict, a conflict that she doesn’t quite iron out until she’s aged and considers what the wisdom of her mother’s words meant back then and to the current her. Those words, cementing her lifelong conviction, as her mother proclaimed, “Inside, you must always be Chinese. You must be proud you are different. Your only shame is to have shame.”

This essay identifies how it feels to be trapped by race and the barriers of trying to fit in which over time builds burdens of shame around one’s identity. The sad truth is that race and cultural custom embarrassment is very prevalent in our society. And it is one of those things that many people in society have been reluctant to admit or talk about.

I personally can identify with Amy Tan’s desire to fit into a white-dominated American society, because I’ve struggled with this very issue myself as a child. I was sent to religious-based private schools throughout my childhood that were predominantly filled with Caucasian students. I was usually the only one with brown skin. No one else was black like me. It was clear that I was different from other kids and my teachers. I always found myself trying to fit in or be more like the Caucasian students and teachers that influenced me.

However, I still lived in a mixed ethnic community on the southeast side of Chicago known as Jeffrey Manor, and all my regular neighborhood friends looked like me. My neighborhood friends use slang and broken English. But I was ashamed or embarrassed to use this sort of dialect at school with the Caucasian students or teachers because I knew I would be teased or reprimanded.

I had to dress and wear my hair different than most of my neighborhood friends because it was, for some reason back then, more important how I was viewed by my Caucasian peers and teachers. I had to totally change who I was and leave behind or forget some of my own culture. I was trapped by race that I thought I should be rather than freeing myself and being the person that I really was, who was me.

Today I am a man of many mindsets, most of them determined to be the best version of me despite my complexion or race. I have learned to settle into and embrace my skin as a badge of honor as I celebrate the rich history of my heritage. I am not ashamed, so if you are black like me, you shouldn’t be ashamed either, because we are a royal and resilient people of many darker shades. Blind perception and false reality is one of the things that can trap one from being who they really are.

With that, I would like to thank you, and I pray that you took something the value from my words that you can utilize to join others and I in the fight for healthy societal inclusion and change along with police and criminal justice reform. I believe the courage of many to take a stand will make a difference, so you and I must be brave in our pursuit to be heard and demand the change where are long overdue.

Once again, I could be emailed through the JPay app or a website system. Just insert Minnesota for state, number 210006 for ID number. Or you can mail me at Izell W. Robinson #210006, 7600-525th Street, Rush City, Minnesota 55069.

Remember, all positively supportive contact is welcomed and appreciated. Thank you for listening, and thanks to prison radio for this much-needed platform of linking prisoners with their communities in a healthy way to foster needed dialogue and support.