We’re not sure if you’ve been clocking headlines lately (you know, aside from the disgusting news regarding R.Kelly and all that’s Trump-related), but Airbnb’s unfortunately found themselves amid another steaming heap of racism—namely these two recent stories, which appear to have simultaneously hit the fan:
Take a moment to let those headlines marinate, and then we’ll break them down.
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So the first story mostly speaks for itself, but to give it some context: an Airbnb host was fined $5,000 after canceling a reservation made by Dyne Suh. Suh booked an Airbnb home with her fiancé and friends as part of a February ski trip in Big Bear, CA, but according to CBS News, host Tami Barker canceled Suh’s reservation upon the group’s arrival, citing an issue with her “additional” guests. Her true issue quickly became apparent when Barker sent a message stating “she wouldn’t rent to her if she were the last person on Earth,” later adding: “One word says it all. Asian.” In addition to paying a $5,000 fine, officials from the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing say Barker will attend a college course in Asian-American studies. Barker’s also reportedly agreed to personally apologize to Suh, and will complete community service at a civil rights organization.
The second story finds a host facing attempted murder charges in Amsterdam after pushing South African filmmaker and student Sibahle Steve Nkumbi head-first down a flight of stairs. According to South African news site News 24, Nkumbi and three of her friends got into an argument with the host regarding “who rented them the apartment.” The argument, which Nkumbi later said had no provocation (at one point, she was trying to calm the host down), ended in the host allegedly referring to the women as “you people” and ordering them to leave because “this is not Africa.” A video captured by Zanele Muholia—a South African artist and activist—vividly shows the moment Nkumbi was pushed. Nkumbi reportedly suffered a concussion, bump to the head and bruises.
And just a friendly warning: the below video is very distressing to watch.
“An increasing number of Airbnb hosts and guests have voiced their concerns about being discriminated against when trying to book a listing because of their race, sexual orientation or gender identity,” an internal report released by Airbnb in 2016 reads.
And social media witnessed this in real time. Remember #AirbnbWhileBlack? Quirtina Crittenden, a 23-year-old Black woman from Chicago, created the hashtag after being turned down by hosts far more times than one could call coincidental.
“The hosts would always come up with excuses like, ‘oh, someone actually just booked it’ or ‘oh, some of my regulars are coming in town, and they’re going to stay there,'” Crittenden told NPR. “But I got suspicious when I would check back like days later and see that those dates were still available.”
In an experiment done by Benjamin Edelman, Michael Luca and Dan Svirsky of Harvard Business School, it was found that Airbnb users with “African American-sounding names” were about 16 percent less likely to be accepted for booking than folks with “white-sounding” names—and this applied to a wide range of situations, regardless of how cheap or expensive listings were, how diverse neighborhoods were, and how experienced (or not) the hosts were.
“They also found that Black hosts were also less likely to accept requests from guests with African American-sounding names than with white-sounding ones,” writes NPR. (In other words, it ain’t even always just white folks who hold a racial bias, but if you woke as the kids like to say, you knew that, tho.)
So what’s Airbnb doing to resolve this?
“In the case in California, we had already permanently banned the offender from our platform—we did that months ago,” Nick Papas, a spokesperson for Airbnb’s communications team who worked closely on the their September initiative, tells CASSIUS. “When we put out or report back in September, we set a goal, and the goal was to have 1 million Instant Book listings.”
For those unfamiliar with how Airbnb works, Instant Book allows anyone to book a listing without having to receive approval from the host. “It’s good for consumers, it’s good for hosts, and it also helps combat discrimination,” says Papas. According to a report released by Airbnb in May, the platform now has 1.4 million Instant Book listings available, and 60 percent of all reservations are now booked instantly.
Airbnb’s community commitment, which also presents as a one-line agreement that users must adhere to upon signing up (we created an account and checked it out for ourselves), seeks to ensure everyone in the Airbnb community is treated fairly “regardless of their race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or age—with respect, and without judgment or bias.” According to Papas, “it is a very clear called out pledge that everyone who wants to join in our community has to agree to, and everyone who is on Airbnb has agreed to that community commitment.”
“The only other thing I think is probably worth calling out,” Papas adds, “is the permanent team of engineers and data scientists and researchers that we have whose whole job is to work on issues of fighting bias, fighting discrimination and promoting inclusion. These are not folks that were dispatched to work on something for a short period of time. This is a permanent team of technical experts and others who are running experiments and it is their entire job to think about how we can make our platform more fair, more open, and more inclusive, which is definitely something we think is really important.”
But that still doesn’t necessarily speak to what happens once reservations are made. The most recent stories of racial bias require answers to an array of questions: It’s clear Airbnb is committed to equitable treatment of its guests, but how can they ensure hosts are just as committed to the same beyond the pledge they may make during the approval process? How can you really filter for racism, xenophobia and other forms of bias? How can guests be protected when essentially anyone can press the button? And how are people like Suh and Nkumbi supported once they’ve experienced mistreatment? What actions are being taken to prevent such incidents from occurring in the future?
“This is obviously stuff that we take pretty seriously and it’s really important to everyone from the top of the company all the way down,” says Papas.
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