Black Woman in yellow dress in Amsterdam

Lené Green – No Apologies: Black Hair and Boardrooms Abroad

Lené Green is an enterprising businesswoman who has lived as an expat most of her adult life, relocating for her education, her career, and most recently, for her love. She has learned invaluable lessons about humanity and identity from the Americas to Asia to Europe, but none more important than finding Black community and unapologetically displaying her Blackness no matter where she finds herself in the world. My conversation with Lené began in 2018, shortly before she left Amsterdam for Singapore and eventually Japan, where she and her husband now reside.

A native of Bermuda, she fondly recalled  childhood memories of visiting the United States. “I remember being so excited to go to McDonald’s and Burger King, because we don’t have those in Bermuda.” She remembered  a trip to Universal Studios and Disney World as the fire that ignited a love for travel in her, noting that the vacation was her “first taste of really wanting and craving something from a country that you know you’re not going to be able to get at home.”

The entrepreneur claims the island of Bermuda as her home, but its tiny, 20.54 square mile perimeter could not contain her desire to see the world. At just seventeen years old she enthusiastically leaped at the opportunity to study abroad in Caracas, Venezuela. Green laughed, commenting that while she had the privilege of traveling often throughout her childhood, once she left Bermuda for her first extended stay outside of the country, she knew a life abroad was something she wanted to pursue.

Looking back at her first expat experience, she recalls they mailed her plane ticket to her house. Lené describes her stay in the South American country as one characterized by her own naivete. With limited information about the nation or its challenges, the oldest of six children quickly discovered the perceived relationship between race and wealth. “As a Black person in Venezuela, you’re almost at an advantage because people will just assume that you are poor.”

 

The non-native Spanish speaker recounted her arrival, explaining “my host family called just to make sure I got [in] safe… I had no idea what they were saying. I was really nervous and stressed out. I didn’t have any family. I didn’t even know how to tell people I was hungry, I was scared. You realize how important language is when it’s time to survive.” Her year-long introduction to living abroad was a “shock to her system” and she believes there will never be a situation that will be more difficult than living in the mountainous town of Tachira, Venezuela.

After a year on the ground, she adjusted to life in South America and eventually learned Spanish. Though acquiring the language helped her better navigate her daily life, it also highlighted the privilege she had as a Black English speaker from a British Overseas Territory. “When I didn’t speak Spanish, I was assumed to be American or Caribbean. As soon as I learned Spanish, I was assumed to be the maid. I got more respect before I learned Spanish.”

“When I didn’t speak Spanish, I was assumed to be American or Caribbean. As soon as I learned Spanish, I was assumed to be the maid. I got more respect before I learned Spanish.”

Her cultural and linguistic immersion was not all negative. She enjoyed time with a host family that had children around her age and by the end of her stay she was proficient in the Spanish that was completely incomprehensible to her just twelve months prior. “On the way back home [to Bermuda] I stayed at the same hotel and I remember talking to the people I had met when I had arrived. They looked at me like I was a ghost. Like ‘oh my God! When you came here you didn’t know anything!’ One of the guys called his mom [over]!”

With few local educational options in Bermuda at the time, Lené knew she would need to broaden her scope of opportunity. Prior to studying in Venezuela she toured universities in North America. When looking at programs in Canada, she noted the presence of several other Bermudan students. After pursuing several small college towns, she decided, “If I’m gonna do this, if I’m gonna explore, I want to be around a whole bunch of different kinds of people.” This desire for diversity drove her decision to enroll at York University in Toronto, Ontario. While studying in Canada was a good experience, her new life abroad was punctuated by visits home for holidays, during which Lené realized something very important for the first time: “I would never have all of the people that I love in the same place, ever. You’ve formed so many relationships and your world kind of splits up a little bit. Even if I got married, I don’t think everyone will be able to come.”

Black Woman sitting on Bench

Image courtesy of Lené Green

After earning her Bilingual degree in English/French from York, she went on to earn her Master’s of Public Policy degree in economics from the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. Ready to enter the workforce, she reflected back on the difficulties she had during her first long-term stay abroad in Venezuela. While she hardly remembers the course content, the experience of living abroad and exploring/understanding different cultures left an unmovable mark. She thought about what tips she would give to someone in her shoes. “I wanted to talk to people about what [living abroad] can really do for your life and how it can help you to grow and see things from a different perspective.”

In September of 2014, dissatisfied with her market research job in Atlanta, Lené applied for over 300 jobs in Amsterdam, Netherlands. By November 27th, she secured a job, sold most of her belongings, and moved to Europe. Now a seasoned expat, she took her early lesson about language with her when she eventually moved to Amsterdam. She chose not to learn Dutch because, well, she didn’t want to. But she also decided to forgo acquiring the local tongue because she wondered, “If I do learn Dutch, are they going to give me the same respect that I have now as a foreigner?” Tearing up a bit, Lené waxes nostalgic. “When I got off the plane, I knew. I knew it was for me. I’m a big energy person and I just felt so ‘me’. I saw a poster for a dancehall Caribbean party and I was like ‘what is going on’? I didn’t realize there was a huge Caribbean and South American population here. I felt really connected to the Black culture and Black expats.”

After two years of working for a company there, she was ready for a career shift that would allow her location flexibility and teaching opportunities. Specifically, she was interested in dispelling the myth that the term ‘expat’ refers to old, white men. “I want to expose the world to people who are [moving abroad for work] – no, I’m not a white man, I’m a Black woman. And if I can do it, you can do it. Anybody can do it. There are all these cool opportunities that you can take advantage of. I did it and this is how you can do it.” It is with this passion and desire to change the expat narrative that Lené launched her own boutique expat consulting business – Take Flight (now part of The Goal Standard).

Through Take Flight, Lené shares with her clients the deep knowledge and vast experience she has gained living abroad. One of the greatest lessons she has learned as a Black woman living abroad is the importance of standing up for yourself and not letting others define your experience. “It doesn’t mean just tell everybody off. People have a tendency to put you in a box and judge you based on your appearance, based on what they think you are because you are a Black woman. It is okay to let them know ‘I’m not the one’. Not in a bad way, but like, ‘Hey, I know you may have these preconceived notions of what it means to be a Black woman, but I am not those things. And even if I was, I still deserve respect.”

In addition to providing helpful practical resources for living abroad, Lené has helped to cultivate community. Lené, along with four other Black women living abroad in the Netherlands, created the group Amsterdam Black Women. “We connect and socialize and support each other on certain things. Like the […] racism you can experience in Europe when it comes to working and trying to progress in your career. Relationships, kids. We do brunch and we have book clubs. I don’t know how I could have survived living in Amsterdam without this group. I think it was pivotal in making my experience the best four years of my life.”

She also emphasizes the importance of choosing to live in a place that is the best fit for you, not just a place that will look cool on your Instagram feed. 

“Go somewhere that you think you would like. [Before I moved to the Netherlands], I really wanted to move to Barcelona. But Amsterdam was a much better fit for me. When you’re thinking about moving abroad, really think about what you want to get out of your experience.”

Lené left Amsterdam for Singapore in September 2018. She describes the country as luxurious, safe and friendly, and says for her “it was the perfect career trajectory.” Working in the fin-tech industry, Singapore was an ideal relocation as the banking and finance hub of Southeast Asia. She enjoyed a great diversity of foods from a number of cultures during her time there, from Mexican to West Indian.  As great as this move was for her career, she notes that country number six was missing something very important to her: Blackness. “It was difficult for me to find community. Luckily I had a group of five friends who are all Black women professionals so we did a lot of things together. But I missed our culture a bit.”

Green connected to her tight-knit friend group through the social and philanthropic organization SIS Outreach – Singapore chapter. The group connects Black women in Singapore and even sponsors a nearby Indonesian orphanage that houses Black children from Papua New Guinea. The organization also hosts a variety of social activities ranging from yacht parties to Thanksgiving gatherings. Another social group, Black & Bougie, was a go-to for nightclub and blunch (that’s Black brunch) outings. Although she enjoyed the lavish lifestyle modern-day Singapore has to offer, she was also able to connect the country’s origins to the struggle of Blacks in North America. “Singapore was kind of like swampland. It was founded by a progressive group of people who said ‘we want something different from this country’ and were exiled and told to create a new country on this swampland’. I think they did a pretty good job with what they were given.”

A newlywed, Lené says she is thankful to have been in a relationship while she lived in Singapore. She recognizes the downside to being Black in Singapore, saying “Dating as a Black woman anywhere, but especially in Asia, is quite challenging. I heard a lot of stories from my friends. People stare a lot, which is extremely frustrating and a little bit invasive. I had issues with people at work touching my hair and it was never really addressed. I was in a position where I was the only Black person, and at times, the only woman, in certain rooms. As soon as I walked in the aura of the room changed. I don’t know if it was outright racism, but they don’t expect to go into a boardroom in Singapore and see you there. I had a lot of difficulties emotionally being there.”

Perhaps part of the emotion spawns from the fact that Lené, like so many, has worked hard to get to where she is from early in her career. She said she “kept [her] head down and worked” to achieve, maintain, and elevate her position in spaces dominated by older white men. Recalling her first workplace in Amsterdam, she explains “I was just coming from Atlanta, [Georgia, USA], so I was coming from pure Blackness. Mind you, I had grown up going to private school in Bermuda so I was taught how to adapt to white culture. I knew what to do but it was like I was having this low-key awakening. Like, should I have to do this shit?”

During her time in Amsterdam Lené experienced a freedom she had not encountered before. “I had never worn my natural hair out to work ever. There was this underlying rule that our hair is unprofessional. But with the Black women group there, we were talking about things and creating solidarity in a place that’s incredibly white.” She admits being nervous completely showcasing her natural hairstyle; instead of wearing it fully out, she pinned the top. Something her white colleagues never had to consider. To her surprise, human resources told her she should wear her hair in this style more often and she says, “I hate to say it but that was the foundation I needed to open the door to being completely me.” As she continued her career with another company in the Netherlands, she gained more confidence in her identity as a Black woman moving through white spaces. “I became unapologetic, in a way, about my Blackness.”

Black Woman walking on busy Japanese street

Image courtesy of Lené Green

Lené reiterated the importance of finding community in a world where racism is so ingrained and institutionalized. Workplace isolation and general loneliness can have a very negative impact on what should be a very positive experience. She drives the need for belonging home, declaring, “I don’t ever want to move to a country and not be able to be around my people right away.” Doing research and utilizing social networks ahead of a move, she says, enables you to immediately connect with your people and engage with the expatriate experience with a stronger sense of familiarity in unfamiliar surroundings.

In 2020 Lené relocated to Japan to join her husband at the start of international stay-at-home orders following the COVID-19 outbreak. When asked what her experience has been like living abroad as a married woman, she thoughtfully replied, “I can honestly say I’ve lived abroad for every single reason that there is: exchange programs, study abroad, for a job, I moved for love, I got relocated by my company. And now I moved to be with my husband. This is different. I’m not here because I want to be here, I’m here because this is where my husband is. I work online a lot so I don’t see a lot of Japan. Japan is not really for me; I want to move to a place that has a lot more Black culture. But being married, that’s not really what determines my moves anymore. We’re doing what’s best for both of us, and we need to be [in Japan] right now. I’m not out in the streets anymore. It’s about creating a family, creating a partnership.” She compares Amsterdam to being “everything,” while Japan now serves as more of a backdrop to her new priorities.

One of Lené Green’s greatest assets is her ability to recognize that the common thread of humanity is connectivity. “If I look at the world fifteen years ago when I started, and I look at the world now, what I see is a natural transition to people finding their tribe. Even on social media, people are only communicating with people and looking up things that relate to who they are as a person. To be honest, I’m surprised that that natural shift has caused a lot of discrimination around the world. But I’m also surprised that people are actually surprised. Everyone in the world, no matter where you live, is looking for a connection. Someone they have something in common with. That’s just the nature of humans.”

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