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How a National Dialogue Taught Me About the Inequity of Unpaid Internships: A Response to My Own Article

How our national dialogue about anti-Black racism and institutionalized discrimination in the United States has led me to confront my own privilege, and the ignorance of a recent article I authored. Here's how my perspective has shifted on the notion of unpaid internships.

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Just four months ago, I published an article here on Thrive Global about my meaningful experience as an unpaid intern last summer. I reread this piece a couple of days ago, when a notification on LinkedIn prompted it to resurface. In the article, I briefly reference the controversy surrounding unpaid internships and studies that show that both employees and companies do better when interns are paid. But as I read it over again, amid a moment of national dialogue calling for a revolution of the police system, anti-racist work to address our nation’s institutionalized anti-Black racism, and an examination of privilege in the United States and around the world, I was struck by how oblivious I had been to the privilege evident in my words. 

Racial disparities in economic outcomes have prevailed for centuries. A study on income discrepancies by race throughout the United States from 1989 to 2015 found that Black Americans and Native Americans have much lower rates of upward mobility and higher rates of downward mobility than their white counterparts, which lead to significant disparities spanning generations. The Economic Policy Institute reported that the median household wealth for white families is 12 times higher that of Black families. And according to the Brookings Institution, Black college students graduate with the highest levels of debt. It’s not surprising, then, that Black students and students of color are often unable to work unpaid internships. As Jyarland Daniels wisely put it: “students who opt out of unpaid internships are neither short-sighted nor do they value their education less than those [who] work for free, instead they are victims of the unpaid internships that benefit employer and educational institutions at their expense.” 

Studies show that 60% of employers prefer to hire applicants with internships on their resume. If students can’t afford to work an unpaid internship they lose out on both job experience and the potential for that experience to become a job offer. In a nation where between 500,000 and one million Americans intern for free each year, students of color often leave universities with resumes less robust than their advantaged peers who were financially secure enough to work unpaid internships throughout college. 

As Forbes contributor Nick Morrison writes, the cost of working an unpaid internship means that “young people from low-income families are effectively being blocked from entering some careers, hampering social mobility and reinforcing existing divides.” With this background in mind, it’s clear to see how “unpaid internships only further opportunities for those who can afford to take them, while leaving those who can’t behind.”

I concluded my original article by sharing that my position as an unpaid intern encouraged my boss to find alternate methods to ensure that I took value from my internship experience. Some of this value included incredibly special moments of mentorship, unique opportunities for learning, and a diverse platform for developing skills. I remain grateful to have built this relationship with my boss, and I greatly benefited from my internship. However, I’m now more aware that this experience was not born out of “luck”. Rather, an intentional, racialized social and economic system afforded my family and me opportunities to accumulate wealth and capital as a result of our whiteness, enabling me to accept an unpaid summer job and to revel in its value which did not come in the form of a paycheck.

In just a couple months, I went from feeling passionately enough about an experience to write an article about it, to reading that article once again, in shock over its ignorance. The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and centuries of discrimination against Black people have led to a national dialogue and a mass sharing of anti-racist resources. The conversations I’ve had and resources I’ve explored in the last weeks have helped me to begin to understand the intricacies and immense impact of white privilege in every aspect of society. The path toward becoming anti-racist is one that I and many others have taken far too long to embark on, and while I still have years of work and learning to do, I find this to be an important moment to evaluate how my own perspective has shifted. 

With an acknowledgment of the space my initial article and this follow-up piece have occupied, I’ll end my reflection here and point to additional resources from other voices discussing the intersection of race and class, and writings on the inequity built within the system of unpaid internships. 

How Unpaid Internships Reinforce the Racial Wealth Gap

Examining the Black-white wealth gap

Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States: an Intergenerational Perspective

Unpaid Internships: Bad for Students, Bad for Workers, Bad for Society

Are Unpaid Internships Barriers to Success for Some Students of Color? 

Unpaid Internships: Unfair and Unethical

Pay Our Interns

Ethnic and Racial Minorities & Socioeconomic Status

Race and Class: Taking Action at the Intersections

The racial wealth gap: How African-Americans have been shortchanged out of the materials to build wealth

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