Black internships: thinking beyond the opportunity and encountering the reality
I read with keen interest a recent UoE EREN blog post on the topic of black internship programs. I am a black academic. I was drawn to the post because I have a personal experience as a parent of two young black persons who applied to undertake a paid internship initiative for black undergraduates and recent graduates. My children are currently undergraduates in two universities in the UK. Undoubtedly, black internships present an opportunity for young people. There is, however, the reality based on their lived experience. In this post, I will draw on the previous EREN blog and my daughters’ experience, including the final interview for a paid internship. I have her permission to share her story here.
The EREN post talked about the candidate who “on paper was by far the brightest”. But the candidate flailed during the interview and was not selected. We could discern the low socio-economic status of the candidate from the post. This is a structural societal issue which is beyond this blog post. My focus is on the point about what was obvious to the writer that he “clearly had almost next to no interview experience”. These internships are set up, not only as a social exercise (or experiment) but a work opportunity that is highly selective. Unfortunately, the chances for the young person described in the post will nearly always be slim, given the competition. Sadly, despite his impressive résumé, the young man had a disappointing outcome.
The reality is the odds are stacked higher against young people in less privileged communities. Getting it right will require intervention before that disadvantaged young person appears before an interview panel. I will get to this point again after briefly sharing my daughter’s experience during a black internship interview.
Speaking again to the reality of the competitiveness of black internships, the younger sibling did not progress beyond the first stage of CV selection. Her sister progressed through the 3 selection stages and secured an internship with an international firm based in the UK. We all celebrated her wonderful achievement. I will highlight in particular her perspective about her experience during the final interview that points to an issue that we need to consider as we expect these black internship opportunities to increase.
At the two stages of interview, the panellists were white. Stage one interview – a smooth process and very amicable discussion. Stage 2- two panellists. She had a good feeling about the interview, in general. She did however tell me afterwards that she was surprised that panellist 1 asked if he could ask a personal question and said, “how did you end up in Edinburgh?” She said the question reminded her when people have asked her, where “exactly” are you from? She noted panellist 2 seemed surprised by the question. Nonetheless, she told them the short version of her story of how she came to live in Edinburgh. I suppose the question could have been borne out of genuine curiosity. At best, it displayed a lack of racial literacy around the connotations of asking such a question. Considering that they were recruiting for a black internship program, in my opinion, asking ‘how did you come to live here’ was not the best interview question to ask a prospective black intern. On a positive note, panellist 2 replied to her thank you email after the interview. He reassured her that he was very impressed by her preparation for the interview and her questions about the firm.
Short answer to the poster in the previous post – I think there is a lot of work to be done to “get them [internships] right”. On the one hand, there is a clear need for intervention to support young black and ethnic minority folks from disadvantaged backgrounds. Working with these communities will require cooperation and collaboration involving different stakeholders including professionals, employers, parents, local education authorities and the young people themselves. On the other hand, recruiting young black people is a commendable first step towards tackling inequalities. The previous post, however, raises a key point about using the standard metrics for assessment. Crucially, as pointed out by the previous writer, the recruiters “didn’t feel equipped to support such a student” [who did not fit the “standard”]. In addition, what about the racial literacy of those doing the recruiting who are predominantly not from black communities. To get it right, it seems needful to work with recruiters towards greater racial literacy. In the example in the recent EREN post, the other recruiters got a great opportunity to get a “Racial Literacy Class 101” from the black academic. This portrays what is usually the case, with the burden falling on us to do this oft unrecognised labour. But if not us, then who?
Written by a black academic