The crosswalk of my Nigerian-American life

Friday, November 18, 2016

by Profit Idowu, U alumnus and keynote speaker at the OED Equity and Diversity Breakfast

The crosswalk and chance encounter with the police

If you were to approach an intersection and walk over a crosswalk on any street in this campus, many people of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities would enter your line of sight.

What thoughts would come to mind upon first glance? Would you be courageous enough to take a moment to look at life through their eyes and experiences? According to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience two years ago, at first glance, the brain immediately determines how trustworthy a face is before it’s fully perceived, which supports the fact that we make very fast judgments about people. I feel a judgement was made about me during an encounter with the police in the fall of

2013 during my senior year of college. I was on my way back from an afternoon class and was headed north on Church St., making my way through a crosswalk at the intersection of Church and Pillsbury Dr. heading toward 17th Avenue Residence Hall. Some of you here may know the area. After looking both ways and halfway successfully making my way across without getting hit by a car, I got yelled at and flagged down by an UMPD officer making a turn around the same crosswalk that I had just barely made it across. The UMPD officer yelled something at me that I couldn't exactly hear well because I was listening to music. I took my earbuds out, looked him directly in the eyes, and replied, "Yes, officer?"

This officer had a menacing look on his face. Almost with a tone of frustration or anger, he replied to me, enunciating each word as if I couldn't understand what he would say next, "Look both ways when you cross the street." I stood there, confused, because that was second nature—something that I was taught in elementary school. I replied, "What?" Almost thrusting himself out of the car as if jolted by my response, the UMPD officer said, "You heard me. Look both ways before you cross the street." To prevent him from coming out of his vehicle or escalating the situation any further, I responded with a compliant "Yes, officer."

A weird stare-down ensued for what may have been 5 to 10 seconds on that crosswalk, but to me it felt like an hour went by. It was in those 5 to 10 seconds that a feeling of fear made its way into the center of my chest. I thought to myself, would he get out of the car, motion me to the side, and give me a ticket? Would he handcuff me? Would he have taken me to jail? Is it because I’m black? Luckily, the police officer decided to go on his way after that stare-down. I chalk that moment up to two intersecting paths of life connected in a moment of misunderstanding and judgment. I had no idea what he had been through or seen in his life up to that point. On my side of the crosswalk, there have been many people standing behind me, supporting me, who lent a hand in getting me to college. These were all constructive forces in my life. I don’t know his story, nor did he know mine. But if the person in the position of power took a chance to set aside his feelings or perceived biases, he would find more than just a colored face painted with inaccurate thoughts.

He would find a young man looking to make something of himself for his family.

 When we consider the formative experiences of life, aligned from childhood to the present, we are closer to considering our shared existence as more than a discussion of skin color, fairness, or differences. Rather, it is a shared human condition of judgment that can be used as a common thread to understand what's in a name and what's behind the true narrative of a face after that first glance.

Today's equity and diversity breakfast will not only serve as a window into my life and experiences, but as the proverbial crosswalk of my Nigerian-American life. It will also stand as a challenge to look at your crosswalk to affect others as constructive forces whose ripples will touch generations to come.

A look back—a little bit about me and my family background

Nigerian by blood, American by birth is an origin story that starts with the determination for a better life and greater opportunities. My family came to America from Lagos, Nigeria. I’ve had the opportunity to watch my mother work hard to become a self-made woman, fromhotel maid to trained medical assistant serving the elderly. My sister and I were surrounded by wonderful tribal cuisine and a village of Nigerians in a tightly knit community within Minnesota. These things helped shape and mold who we are today. Hustling from day to day and month to month to provide for our family, my mother worked up to the point where she was able to move us out of a small apartment, then to a rented home, then to a home she owned. My mother, sister, and heritage will always be a constant driving force of success in my life.

In the context of diversity in academia in Minnesota, apart from in-group and home life, my out-group in the world made it commonplace for me to be one of the only Nigerian-American kids in a classroom setting. Even as class size and age increased from year to year, teachers and students who had the same skin color as me were still in the minority.

Introspectively, finding a safe space to call my own and connecting with others who looked like me wasn’t easy. Figuring out the pathway to college wasn't easy either. College didn’t look like a possibility for someone like me. I did well in high school, but I was coming from a single parent household where an infrastructure that led to an institution of higher learning wasn’t in place.

Having the opportunity to attend a university meant I would be one of the first to attend college in the US. In my family, I would be a first-generation college student. Attending U of M was more than just an offer of admission. It came with a profound responsibility to live up to the expectations of my mother and contribute to a shared vision of a better life. In pursuit of that dream, I am standing on the shoulders of the slaughtered and oppressed giants who have come before me to make such a dream possible. Known periods and people in history, such as the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the death of Emmett Till, the Little Rock Nine, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the whole civil rights movement—including the names of the known (which many of you are familiar with) and unknown who have lived through that era who fought for equal rights—were catalysts for my success on behalf of the collective black race as a whole, causing ripples to change the fabric of history (as constructive forces) long before I was born.

Before college, I placed myself under the mentorship of two African-American males—Dennis Ware and Don Francis—partaking in programs called “Rites of Passage and Be the Dream.” It was in these programs that I heard the stories of Mr. Ware and other black males who faced racism head-on during their upbringing, prepared for college, and surrounded myself with other young black males who would battle against the stereotypes and prejudices placed upon our people. These men and programs served as antidotes to the deconstructive images and biases my graduating class would encounter: a potential member of the prison system, unfairly targeted by the police, a thug, oreo, ghetto, uneducated, and an n-word.

On my crosswalk, as I took steps toward the present, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities served as a jumpstart to life and placed new advocates for my success as different intersecting paths of life connected.

Stepping stones toward the present—my highlights and achievements as a Gopher (in-brief)

Attending a University means you’re afforded an opportunity to grow, learn, and partake in new experiences. I joined a fraternity (Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc.) and climbed up its ranks—impacting a diverse set of lives and cultures all around the country. I was able to secure an internship at the Royal Bank of Canada in the Technology Services department and at Magnet 360, a tech company that dealt with the now-popular cloud platform Throughout my collegiate career, as I expanded my network, two seasoned U of M faculty and staff made their way across my path and invested in me. Jon Ruzek, the Alumni Association’s senior director of alumni networks, taught me the importance of staying connected with other alumni and networking. He risked his reputation to e-mail and connect me with other professionals for informational interviews and have chats every now and then for some friendly advice on life after college. Orkideh Mohajeri, coordinator of undergraduate studies in CEHD, showed genuine support I’d never experienced from a teacher. In her class, I was forced to chart a course after graduation to the career I’m in now—advertising. Obtaining access to college and attending the University of Minnesota not only served as a crucial foundation, but helped actualize part of the labor of love and mentorship that was placed upon my life.

On my crosswalk, as I looked toward the future, what it means to be a man of color and the importance of equity and diversity in my industry and profession is that it still needs to face its problems and stop blaming others.

Looking ahead—my real-world experience

As a college-educated, Nigerian-American male, I’m afforded the opportunity to work at an agency that promotes a positive and diverse workplace culture. But there are people of color like me who are calling for the advertising industry to face its issues of diversity and lack of inclusion. Being just two years out of college and still building a career, I look to real-world sources and articles to support my journey to look out for what’s ahead. Last month, I read an opinion article that startled me by Derek Walker on The Drum. He goes on to discuss his experiences within the advertising industry as an African-American male. He recounts: 

  • “A partner whose name was on the door met me in the lobby, shook my hand, and said: ‘I’m sorry Derek, but I don’t think our clients are ready for a Black copywriter.’”
  • “You do know if you were white, I’d be working for you. Management has told me that I can give you a raise, but as long as you’re black, you can never be promoted. Dude, I’m sorry.”
  • “Today there are fewer Blacks in advertising, at general marketing agencies than when I first entered the business. The lack of diversity has actually grown worse.”

As a person of color, I share in this struggle. A struggle to overcome. The struggle for equality, ever present at discussions of diversity and inclusion in workplaces all around the country. I realize that there are many others who face barriers and glass ceilings that prevent them from actualizing their dreams. What it means to be a man of color and the importance of equity and diversity amid the social and political tension in 2016 is to play an active role in rewriting the African-American narrative within the United States. Show that people of color are not just media headlines serving as the next Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, or Philando Castile, but future PhDs, lawyers, political leaders, and business executives shaping culture in the world. 

Now, let’s visit your crosswalk for a moment

To the professionals and seasoned adults in the room, imagine with me for a second—if

we were to take a walk together on your personal crosswalk, who are the ten faces who have had a significant impact on your career or life? Who helped you get to where you are today? For the young adults, students, and award recipients in the room, think about the ten people academically or in a current job who have positively impacted your life. Now, think about how many of these people have been of a different race or ethnicity. Did that number dwindle or increase? Did it take up the majority of people you’ve viewed or encountered on your crosswalk? C.S. Lewis once said, “The next best thing to being wise is to live in a circle of those who are.” 

If your crosswalk is only filled with people who look like you, I challenge you today to counteract that natural response of in-group vs. out-group. Take a chance and bring people from different walks of life into your circle. Professionals, grab new hires who are eager and responsive and take them into your sphere of influence. What you teach them will serve as kindle for the next flame to shine brightly. Communication is hard, yet it is the most fundamental thing we do as human beings. We spend thousands of hours talking to those within our in-group, but at times, we find it hard to find a common ground with those in our out-group. Moments of vulnerability in light of judgment, no matter how small or big, go a long way and can be powerful drivers in the lives of others.

If that officer had the opportunity to see beyond that moment on the crosswalk—as I’ve shared with you—this is what he would see: the importance of heritage, role models, and a plethora of experiences and faces standing right behind me that made me into the man I am today.



"Perspectives" stories are the views and opinions of their authors and do not necessarily reflect any official position of the University of Minnesota.