How Do You Solve A Problem Like Airbnb Racism?

Airbnb’s efforts to combat discrimination are a start — but not nearly enough.

Five years ago, I took a writing job at a real estate tech start-up in the Pearl District of Portland, Oregon. The owner had made millions in the now-burst housing bubble in Southern California, and relocated to Portland because it was “so authentic” and “incredibly affordable.” He’d hired a local real estate agent, a woman, to help him get a sense of the market. Within a year, they both owned multiple rental properties in Oregon and Washington, and were making money hand over fist with Airbnb.

Then, one Monday, she came into the office frowning.

“Some Pakistani guy stayed in my Seattle condo this weekend,” she said, shoving a plastic pod into the Keurig machine. “The whole place stank. I’m not having foreign guests again.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“The apartment smelled like curry. I had to spend four hours cleaning on Sunday and even then, it didn’t make a difference. He’s not getting his deposit back.”

“That seems extreme,” I countered weakly, and went back to my desk. I put my fingers on my keyboard, but couldn’t work. I thought of the guest, who would not receive his money. I remembered the many East Indian-American and Pakistani-American children I’d grown up with in the Washington, DC area, who didn’t smell any differently than I did. I thought of the nastiness of the insult — you stink. From my desk, I could smell my coworker’s vivid blend of essential oils and shampoo and fresh coffee.

It turned my stomach.

Late last year, following mounting complaints about racist rental practices like the kind I witnessed that day in the office, Airbnb made a change to its anti-discrimination policy. The announcement came in the wake of increasing public outcry, including stories of black people being denied stays and getting the cops called on them. One issue of discrimination prompted a civil-rights lawsuit. On Twitter, #AirbnbWhileBlack served up a steady stream of disturbing tales.

News of Airbnb’s community commitment was buried in the racist outlash that followed the presidential election.

The company’s new policy was one of a few announced last year to address discrimination. Dubbed a “community commitment,” it specifies that users “commit to treat everyone — regardless of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age — with respect, and without judgment or bias.” Violations, it states, could lead to a ban from the site.

News of the community commitment was buried in the racist outlash that followed the presidential election, overshadowed by spray-painted swastikas, hate crimes against Muslims, and other frightening incidents of race-based violence.

But we shouldn’t ignore the significance of Airbnb’s ongoing issues with, or attempts to fight, discrimination — especially since the story of the company in many ways exemplifies the racism inherent in American society.

A report from Harvard University last year looked at booking behaviors in hosts across multiple income levels in 20 major cities. Its conclusion? Airbnb discrimination is happening everywhere, among hosts of all ages, renting spaces of all types. (The study investigated racial discrimination specifically in the sharing economy, so there’s no data on disabled, LGBTQ, or other marginalized populations.)

One of its alarming findings was that users with “distinctly African-American names” were 16% less likely to be accepted as guests than guests with distinctly white names.

Donnisha Russell, a sound engineer and producer from Portland, Oregon, says she is all too aware of how this discrimination can manifest. “Racism is everywhere,” she notes. “The racism in the Pacific Northwest is more passive, but it’s still there. Of course it affects my ability to stay places. Looking at my name — it’s an ethnic name. There are not a lot of white or Asian women named Donnisha, so sometimes I’ll change it if I’m trying to find a place. But then I show up and, well. I’m still me.”

It’s not just ethnic names that have caused people of color to be denied Airbnb stays. Law student and musician Kevin Waur, who is mixed-race and grew up in Germany, says, “Depending on the area I’m in, I would get 100% denial [from Airbnb hosts]” — the result, he believes, of his photo. Texas and Florida in particular, he notes, had nothing for him. Yet his then-girlfriend, who was white, had no problem confirming a rental.

“I would go as far to say that services like this in general don’t work in terms of racial matters, [because they] allow people the chance to hide their feelings,” Waur adds. He compares it to being rejected on a dating site, such as OKCupid. “All lives matter,” he remarks sarcastically. “But date a black guy? Not my type.”

Frustratingly, when Waur called Airbnb to follow up and asked for notes or details on the rejections, “They weren’t able to disclose info,” he says.

Waur is hardly along in feeling frustrated over Airbnb’s inability to adequately address instances of discrimination.

Last year, Dee Ahmed, a comedian from Arlington, Virginia, stayed at an Airbnb rental while attending the Pittsburgh Comedy Festival. When his rental host returned home early due to her own booking mistake, and saw that Ahmed was a man of color, she became agitated and insisted that he leave.

She offered him $60, which he took, but Airbnb itself responded with silence when Ahmed tried to reach someone about the matter. Finally, he started livetweeting the nightmare; only then did the company respond. Airbnb said it could reimburse Ahmed up to $100 for a hotel — but by that point, it was too little, too late. Ahmed ended up staying his final night in town at an Amtrak station.

In the end, Ahmed notes, “[The host is] still renting out her place. I’m the angry black guy that took $60 and complained.”

These are just a small handful of stories about Airbnb racism — stories that have plagued the company, especially as it seeks to expand into other areas, like trip planning, that could pose still further issues.

Last year, Airbnb began making more tangible efforts to address discriminatory practices. But as it has done so, it’s continuously come up against a troubling reality: the company’s underlying problems with race run deep.

The sad truth is, the Airbnb community itself is not all that diverse. While Airbnb won’t release figures on the demographics of its hosts and guests, research has found that home-sharing platforms like Airbnb skew white; according to Pew, 13% of white adults have booked stays on home-sharing sites like Airbnb, compared to 11% of the overall population and just 5% of black adults. As a writer for Quartz astutely put it:

“Airbnb hosts might not just be less willing to rent their properties to black people. The very socioeconomic makeup of Airbnb’s host and guest communities could be setting up the non-white and non-wealthy to be treated as outsiders.”

At the same time, Airbnb as a company lacks the kind of diverse representation that’s been proven critical for the implementation of truly inclusive policies.

As of last year, less than 10% of the company’s U.S.-based employees came from “underrepresented populations.” Moreover (and perhaps not coincidentally), the company was founded by three white male programmers from Silicon Valley — a population that isn’t exactly known for its sensitivity to women, minorities, and other marginalized groups. It’s become clear that when these founders were initially establishing a framework for their business, they failed to adequately take into account potential issues with discrimination —putting them in a position of essentially playing defense since.

As a September 2016 report, “AirBNB’s Work To Fight Discrimination and Build Inclusion,” noted:

“[Airbnb Co-Founder] Brian Chesky was also forthright in admitting that his company was slow to address problems of racial discrimination. He and his co-founders Joe Gebbia and Nathan Blecharczyk started Airbnb in 2008 with the best of intentions, but were not fully conscious of racial bias when they designed the platform.”

In other words, without diverse leadership, the company simply failed to understand how racism could manifest, or the importance of establishing systems to prevent it — an example, yet again, of how crucial it is for companies to make diverse representation a key part of their founding mission.

Airbnb Co-Founder Brian Chesky

In the face of lingering issues, the onus has often fallen on guests of color to game a system set up to work against them.

Russell says that sometimes, it’s in her best interest to look for hosts who genuinely want her as a guest. “I want to get a sense of who I’m staying with,” she says. “If I’m going to North Dakota, for example, and I’m looking for a place on Airbnb and I see a Confederate flag or a Trump sign, I’m like, ‘I can’t stay here.’ I wouldn’t put myself in an unsafe situation. I don’t do Mom-and-Pop places for the same reason, because of people’s preconceived notions.”

‘I’m looking for a place on Airbnb and I see a Confederate flag or a Trump sign, I’m like, I can’t stay here.’

But of course, this is not a position any guest should have to be put in. Which raises the question: What can Airbnb do?

To its credit, the company has taken some steps toward progress. Last year, it hired former Attorney General Eric Holder and ACLU exec Laura Murphy to oversee a series of initiatives aimed at addressing issues with discrimination. Starting this year, if a host informs a guest that a space is unavailable at a certain time, they can’t then rent the space to a different guest for the same period — an attempt to prevent hosts from denying a booking to a person of color, then offering it to a white person. The company has also hired a 12-person team dedicated exclusively to fighting bias. And it’s set a goal to diversify its workforce, though not by all that much — it wants to bump its share of “underrepresented populations” from 9.64% to 11% by the end of this year.

There’s also, of course, its new community policy. But while commendable, this feels in some ways like the path of least resistance.

Indeed, there’s a lot more the company could do to address issues, like weeding out problematic users through a screening process and anonymizing applications. It also needs to do much more work to address the whiteness of not only its community, but of its workforce and leadership team.

Meanwhile, the marketplace has opened up for more progressive, inclusive competitor sites to debut. In 2015, for instance, NoirBNB — a social network for black-only rides and rentals — was launched.

But considering Airbnb’s vast influence and scale — it’s served more than 60 million guests in more than 34,000 cities — it’s worth holding out hope that the company can continue to seek out tangible ways to combat discrimination.

In a post-election world, when everything seems so breakable, it’s difficult to imagine people welcoming each other into their homes without judgement or bias. But fighting for that inclusivity is also critical — now more than ever.

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