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Black internship programs – I’m not convinced we’re getting them right!

In the wake of the posting of black squares on social media, institutions and academic stakeholders were again rightly criticised for virtue signalling. As a black academic who has been in this “business” for almost 20 years, I have been involved in many conversations with colleagues about how terrible it is we have so little representation. I have participated in committees and groups that talked endlessly about how things needed to improve and brainstormed many ideas. It was the ideas that required no resource and had a low activation energy (e.g. posting a black square) that people generally engaged in.

So, when last year, several internships and scholarship initiatives were set up for underrepresented ethnic groups I was delighted to see those in power finally putting their money where their mouths are. There were various schemes, including those developed by learned societies and research institutions. The key purpose was the same, to give the opportunity and experience that only the privileged tend to enjoy. Recently, I gladly accepted a request to sit on an interview panel for such an initiative. I genuinely looked forward to meeting young and bright black candidates who wanted a future in academia. My two fellow panellists, both white, were going to host the selected interns in their groups – I provided the black face and insight for the interviews.

The candidates did not disappoint. On paper, they all were substantially more impressive than I was at that stage. We interviewed them and discussed their performances, but one thing became strikingly clear – we were using the standard metrics for assessment; we had just removed the white candidates. The impact of this was particularly clear with one applicant who, on paper was by far the brightest. We had to delay his interview due to Wi-Fi problems; he ended up interviewing at his neighbour’s place. The neighbour seemed not to get the importance; he came in and out of the room a few times before settling into folding laundry in the background for the second half of the interview. The candidate was lovely but clearly had almost next to no interview experience. He was shy and lacked confidence, his hoodie cast a shadow over his face and he kept his answers brief rather than using them as an opportunity to shine.

He was demonstrably very bright and I liked him, but he had received no guidance on how to present himself. In my mind, he was the exact type of black person we should be recruiting in these initiatives. There is no question regarding his potential and intellectual capabilities. There was something about him that resonated with me; something that felt archetypal of being smart, black and British with little knowledge of how these things worked. This hadn’t occurred to my colleagues until I pointed it out to them. They “didn’t feel equipped to support such a student” and to be honest, I agreed with them. In the end, we did not select him.

I have not been involved in other similar schemes and I don’t know if they are setup up like this one. What is clear to me is that we run the risk of only supporting the most privileged from underrepresented groups or worse, recruiting individuals who we are not equipped to support. Don’t get me wrong, internships like these are a step in the right direction but we must get them right. A system that empowers whiteness as the arbitrator of acceptable versus non-acceptable blackness will ultimately fail to be equal, inclusive and diverse.


By A Black Academic

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