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On "Learning" Blackness

I have no idea how to be black. Luckily, there's no one way.

Posted on October 28, 2015, at 10:59 a.m. ET

Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

I fear the chatty barber.

For years my hair has been short, and infrequent conditioner application means it often feels dry when it grows out even slightly. But I've just had it relaxed by Wayne, in a salon in Knightsbridge, and it feels different. In the first post-relaxer wash, the water runs down rather than soaking into the afro, and when I walk out of the salon, even the wind interacts with it differently. The main thing, though, is the feeling of goodwill in my chest afterwards – something I'm not entirely accustomed to.

My previous experiences in black barbershops have been laughable, the supposed common ground of our blackness a no man’s land that I walk upon with unsteady feet. My skin colour is a sort of false advertising, but how is anybody else meant to know that? People see black, or mixed race, or Asian, or Hispanic, and suddenly you must know about this and understand that. The last time a barber said something to me, using Jamaican slang I’d never heard, I didn’t understand and so I laughed nervously. It turns out laughing at a man who hasn’t seen his wife in seven months is frowned upon. Go figure.

There is a long list of things I haven’t done, or hadn’t done until recently. Many black men might be accustomed to fortnightly trips to the barber's to give them a crisp lineup. They’ve probably been doing this since toddlerhood. Adorable as I was as a toddler, I didn’t have my first fade until February. That’s February 2015. Next up: plantain. I genuinely thought this was some sort of inedible plant. Turns out it looks like a banana but doesn't taste like one. I still don’t really know the difference, much to the chagrin of my black friends, and I definitely don’t know how to say it. My best friend tells me it’s pronounced like mountain and fountain, but I have no authority on whether that is correct. At 21, curry goat has only just tickled my taste buds. I have never owned an afro comb. They don’t give a masterclass on how to be black, but if they did, I would be graduating with nothing more than an under-conditioned knot to call hair.

Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

At the salon.

The extent of my black cultural knowledge is predominantly mined from pop culture. Nailing a Nicki Minaj verse, word perfect, is the best measure of my blackness I can muster. That’s pretty feeble in the grand scheme of things. I was raised by white people, in a white town, in a white school, with white friends. In five separate year groups at school, you could count the black people on two hands. Black was something I knew I was and yet something I had never really pursued, both out of circumstances on the ground and also out of wilful ignorance. I was happy to ignore an entire side of my identity and move with the ebb and flow of the white life I had been happily leading.

I didn’t realise how big an impact going to university in Manchester would have on me. Now I was 200 miles away from home, and there were a lot of firsts: living in my own place, buying my own food, paying my own bills. But the biggest first of all, I was encountering a life that wasn’t just white. It didn’t creep up on me; it threw itself in my face, countering the preceding 18 years of obliviousness. Suddenly I had black friends.

I finally began to learn that there was more to being black than knowing a Nicki verse, and how incomplete my knowledge of being black actually was. My new friends talked about their home lives and their personal routines ("creaming" their skin every day, something I did once a week if I remembered). Suddenly there were nights out to attend where there were more than two black people in the club. Sometimes there were nights where the club was 90% black. In Peterborough, you could gather the entire population of young black people and just about fill a small club. And in Spalding, the market town I lived in for the first six years of my life? I may as well have been Jesus.

Ben Henry

As a child, and with cousin Mia.

For almost 20 years I had a shaved head, just like my dad. My relationship with him can be summed up in a paragraph, but probably a lot less. My mum says I look like him, but there are other things I've inherited from him, like my height, and a degree of vanity. He's a professional bodybuilder, and his present to me on my fifth birthday was a signed topless picture of himself. Lucky me. I’m not quite that vain, but I sure do love a mirror. Thankfully, I am more my mother's son, temperament-wise. I only remember him as a bully. The most concise way to sum him up was his belief that my mum picking me up and cuddling me as a baby would turn me gay. He believed in a stricter method of upbringing, something he learned from his own father. My first memory of my dad is being 3 years old and so scared of him I wet myself. My punishment was a slap to the side of my head and, coming as it did from someone 10 times my size, it hurt.

Where my friends aspired to be like their fathers, I feared becoming like mine. At 21, that fear perches lightly on my shoulder, a bird unwilling to take flight.

Ben Henry
Ben Henry

A more usual look.

I put my willingness to stay oblivious to my black identity largely down to him. I haven’t had any contact with my black family in six years, a choice I made to stop them wandering in and out of my life as it suited them. I have no regret or desire for it to be any other way and on my side at least, that door is currently very firmly closed. But the absence of my black family in my life has had an impact on how I identify with being black. My dad may not deserve a paragraph in the book of my life, but our relationship – or lack thereof – is one of the elements at the core of my identity, whether I like it or not. My experience with my black family runs concurrently with how I identify with being black. Which is to say I have shied away from it.

Ben Henry

With my mum in February 2015.

In that regard, my hair has been key. For the first six years of my life, it was pretty much just my mother, a white woman with Irish heritage, and me, her mixed-race son. When I was very small, I would get out of the bath and wrap a towel around my head, because that's what my mum did. My mum, with her straight blonde hair, is the person who at my request buzzed away my nascent curls until the day I left home at 18.

The only experimentation occurred when I was about 7 years old, when my black grandma put my slightly grown-out hair into two-strand twists. They pulled so tight I got a tension headache. I shaved my head soon after. I haven’t looked to change my hair, much the same as I haven’t looked to explore my blackness, and I’ve been OK with both for a while.

Now I live in London, another cultural cauldron, and every day presents an opportunity to go out and discover parts of my identity that I have been otherwise ignoring. There’s the chance for me to acquaint myself with the food I’ve been missing, the music that goes beyond Queen Nicki, the slang that’ll help me relax around the chatty barber. It’s pretty exciting. But for now I’ll start with the hair.

Ben had his hair relaxed by Wayne Shorter-Campbell at Errol Douglas in London.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.