I Repressed My Experience With Racism For a Long Time — Man Like Teslim Alabi

May 8, 2022
What does it mean to be a man? Surely, it’s not one thing. It’s a series of little moments that add up.  Man Like is a weekly Zikoko series documenting these moments to see how it adds up. It’s a series for men by men, talking about men’s issues. We try to understand what it means to “be a man” from the perspective of the subject of the week.

Teslim Alabi is living the dream: leading Product Design at Netflix Global after five years at Microsoft, living a nice life in a country with constant electricity and having great skin — yes, I noticed. Honestly, Teslim is the tech bro I aspire to be. But as I fawn over his life, our conversation shows that the self-declared introvert hasn’t always had it easy. It’s been a long journey, and now, he’s finally getting settled into the life he deserves. 

In this episode of Man Like, Teslim talks about growing up with a Muslim dad and Christian mum, stepping up to save his university relationship and how he’s been able to navigate life as a black man living in America.

What was growing up like for you? 

I grew up with my family in Enugu. We didn’t have a lot, but I wouldn’t say we were poor. My dad was a branch manager for a restaurant start-up in Enugu, and my mum was a trader with her own store. We were generally okay, my parents did a good job of shielding my siblings and I from the tough times we’d routinely experience. Interestingly, when we were younger, my dad was Yoruba-Muslim, while my mum was Igbo-Christian. We grew up with that mix and went to the church and mosque. We were in between. 

Wow. I’m interested in knowing how this worked out? 

I don’t know how they did it, but my parents made it work, and we never noticed any friction between them about religion. We would go to the mosque on Fridays and church on Sundays. Outside religion, the difference in their cultures was another interesting intersection for my siblings and I. My dad always said, “When you’re old enough, you’ll decide the path you want to take.” He later converted to Christianity, and if you ask my mum, she’ll tell you it’s because of her prayers. LOL. 

Did growing up with a structure like that affect your sense of identity? 

The only time I became aware that my family was a bit different was in primary school, specifically in social studies classes, where they’d talk about the makeup of an ideal family. Those were the moments I realised my family didn’t fit into the typical box of what a Nigerian family should look like. Intertribal & inter-religious families weren’t as common as I assumed at the time.

Growing up like that helped me realise that multiple truths can co-exist. It has shaped my mind to accept different views and ways of living and being. 

Now that you’re older, what religion have you settled on?

I was raised primarily Christian, but I’ve always been very curious about exploring philosophy and understanding more about the universe. I don’t oppose any beliefs. I will always be curious — wherever that leads me, I’ll go. 

Still on identity, can you tell me when you first realised you were a man? 

I feel like I’ve always been independent since I was like 8 years old. But one significant moment I can pinpoint was when my wife’s (my girlfriend at the time) parents wanted her to return to Nigeria for NYSC, after university in Canada. We had done long-distance in the past and understood a move would strain our relationship, so we had to act fast. There was a short period of time when she wasn’t getting any direct support, and I offered to help.

It wasn’t easy. I wasn’t making money at the time, but whatever pocket money I had, I’d split it with her. We made it work. She’s also very independent, so the idea of someone who’s not her family supporting her didn’t sit well. It took her a while to accept any help from me. I had to beg. LOL. It was a lot of pressure and sacrifices on both sides.

I told my dad about it, years later, after we had gotten engaged, and his response was that these are the things that make us men — we make sacrifices and give even when we don’t have. 

What did you take away from this experience? 

I learnt how to see things from a mindset outside of my own. My wife is more balanced and level-headed with how she approaches things. But as a man, I wanted to be useful and do something immediately. In a bid to act, I could’ve come off as desperate and controlling, and she’d have just gone back to Nigeria instead of putting herself in that situation. Working through this process with her taught me to be gentle in my approach to conversations and problem-solving. It was a learning curve for me. 

Why did you feel this need to be “useful”? 

From my perspective, it’s a massive part of our notion of masculinity — the need to always be the problem solver, to want to be seen as the person mobilising and moving everyone else forward. But over time, I’ve realised that people’s needs differ, and masculinity should be about a malleability of approach. I’m learning that being there for people doesn’t always mean that I have to solve their problems. Sometimes, they just want you to be there, to listen. 

Nice. Being a black man in Nigeria is one thing, but being a black man in the US must be different. Can you tell me about your experience? 

So I moved to the US for my master’s after completing university in Nigeria. I’d been to the US with my parents a number of times, but this time, I travelled on my own. When I arrived, on my first day, I went out to look for food, and it hit me that my parents had been doing most of the running around whenever we visited. For the first time, I was on my own. I went to this crowded park across the street, and even though there were so many people around me, I just felt incredibly alone. 

Things got easier as I started cultivating relationships, but something happened in my first week that messed with me. I was walking on the street with my headphones, and a group of mostly white teenagers started following me around, yelling the N-word. All I could think about was how I was alone on the road and how this could end badly for me. 

I’m so sorry. 

I was coming from a country where I looked like everybody else, and suddenly, I was in this country where I stuck out like a sore thumb. It was a jarring switch for me. Oppression is rife in Nigeria, but people see it, everyone is aware, it’s undeniable. As black men in America, we get oppressed and people act like it’s not there, they can’t see it, so we feel paranoid and question our reality. There was another time I was in Hawaii, this woman on a scooter called me the N-word and just sped off. There are other less apparent instances like being the only black person at work and having no one take your ideas or suggestions seriously. Even though you’re the expert, your qualifications are always being questioned. 

Early on, I had to repress my experiences with racism, hoping that maybe if I didn’t dwell on them, then they never happened. It wasn’t until a community gathering after another black man got profiled, shot and killed that all of the repressed emotions came flooding back again. Coming from Nigeria, the use of the N-word might not be seen as a big deal. But getting here and knowing that some people say it to intimidate me, to make me feel small, gives it a different meaning. 

I’ve adapted to the system because I know I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t come here. But despite all this, every time I go back to Nigeria, I immediately feel like I’m home. There’s something peaceful about being around people who look and sound like me. 

I agree. Let’s switch gears for a bit. What brings you joy these days? 

Joy, for me, is starting to look more like impact. I’ve always been in this space where I try to make an impact by telling stories. And now, I am getting to a point in my career where I am mentoring other people, and I co-founded a program to help underrepresented people get jobs in tech. When I think about joy and fulfilment these days, I think about these things. It’s always about service and what you can do for others.

As a product designer, I’m working with Netflix to design features that ensure users have the best possible experience on the platform. I’m doing what I love, so my job is a source of fulfilment. Also, making time for family and the important people in my life. I’m trying to invest more in those relationships. 

Looking at what we’ve discussed, and your journey so far, if you could change one thing, what would it be?

If I changed anything, I don’t think I would end up where I am. We can have all the speculations about what could have gone better, but I feel like I only have the power to influence what is before me, so I spend a lot of energy on that. I don’t have regrets. 

Amen to that. 

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