Sometimes you have to be willing to save yourself from unhealthy and abusive work environments, even if you’re just an intern.
As an intern, you have the power to create your own experience.. or at least, that’s what you’re told. While this is normally the case, sometimes the odds are stacked against you when you can’t find anyone who actually wants you there. This internship was challenging, not because the work was difficult, but because of the toxic social environment, and the person I thought would come to my support was the worst of them all.
Since we’ve been in lockdown due to COVID-19, it’s given me a lot of time to reflect on my professional experiences over the years. One in particular stands out to me — my time at Bravo, the television network known for the Real Housewives franchise.
After entering my senior year at St. John’s University, I thought it was pretty much cake from that point on. I was about to graduate with a B.S. in public relations, and at the time felt that B.S. stood for, well, b***s***. I wasn’t a fan of school, and wasn’t quite sure about my major, but I was excited to get some real world experience and finally graduate.
For the first half of my senior year, I had been interning within the Standards & Compliance Department at NBCUniversal. My internship consisted of reading and reviewing Law & Order: SVU scripts, Seth Meyers’ and Jimmy Fallon’s jokes, providing notes on content that might be too racy for television. This was probably the most ridiculous and equally fun internship I’ve ever had. When this gig was wrapping up, I applied for an internship internally at Bravo within their public relations department. They seem to favor interns who have previously worked as an intern within the company already which made securing my internship at Bravo relatively easy.
My time at Bravo.
After walking into the famous 30 Rockefeller Center to start my first day at Bravo, I felt like I was really living in a dream. My desk was right outside of Andy Cohen’s office and I sat next to his personal assistant (who was lovely by the way and I believe still works for him).
When I walked into orientation it was a bit disappointing, but not surprising, to see that I’d be the only person of color interning that semester. When you’re young and find yourself in a new work situation, it’s natural to feel the need to find someone you feel you can relate to. Naturally, that’s what I did. There was one black girl on the PR team who was a Coordinator, (to whom I will refer to as Becky, because she did have great hair) and so I automatically felt more comfortable speaking with her because I assumed that we probably had shared experiences, or at the very least would feel interested in getting to know the only other POC on the team, be it an intern or not.
Unfortunately for me, Becky had no intention of playing mentor or showing me any bit of kindness as she and her colleagues did with the other interns.
If you’re a person of color reading this, you might have experienced this before. In the early stages of your career, when you run into someone else of color in a position senior to you, you expect a sort of shared acknowledgment or nod, like: “hey, we both worked hard to get here, but you have my support if you need it — wink wink” sort of thing. Not at all special treatment, just a show of support, as it can be lonely looking around the room to find that nobody looks like you. Instead, sometimes you get someone who almost purposefully avoids you, sometimes even putting you down in front of colleagues as a way to distance themselves from you. It seems some people just don’t see the benefit it brings to the greater community when you hold the door open behind you.
The Wendy Williams incident.
My first indication that I was truly on my own was during my first big assignment. Becky and I were to escort the cast from Fix My Choir to The Wendy Williams Show as they were the musical guests. Being that this was my first time escorting talent to a show, I was incredibly excited. Full disclosure, I had never seen Fix My Choir, so I was completely unfamiliar with the cast. This also meant that I wasn’t at all star struck, so I was completely fine keeping them company in the green room while Becky paced the hallway texting, trying to look busy and very important.
The cast was noticeably nervous, so they started talking to me. I responded, making small talk, trying to make them feel comfortable. I noticed Becky looking in the green room as she paced back and forth and didn’t think anything of it. We left the studio and I felt great, like I had helped make the show a success in some small way.
We get back to 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and I’m almost immediately called into the Directors office. The Director had spoken no more than two words to me over the course of the internship, so I had a feeling I wasn’t being given the best intern of the year award. Apparently, Becky decided to tell the Director that I was speaking to talent, which nobody told me was a no-no. Although I’m sure if I would’ve ignored the cast while they were trying to make conversation with me, I would’ve been in trouble then too. This was a lose-lose situation.
I only had a few weeks left at my internship, but after that experience, I mentally checked out. It was obvious they were not interested in making this an enjoyable experience, much less offer me a job after I graduated.
Don’t be like Becky.
While it may not be particularly professionally savvy of me to share these experiences, I think it’s important that intern’s experiences are heard. If someone junior to you has reached out, accept their invitation and allow them to pick your brain, treat them to coffee, make them feel like they belong. While you may not have had the same struggles getting to where you are, realize that you are in a privileged position, no matter your race or ethnic background.
Remember, you have succeeded because of the hard work of others, and in turn, others will succeed because of you.
It’s your responsibility to hold out your hand and bring others along. There is power in sharing our experiences, so I invite you to do the same!