How is Airbnb handling racial discrimination against users?

Inside an Airbnb apartment in Bangkok. Airbnb operates in about 65,000 cities across 191 countries. Source: Airbnb

IN April, popular house-sharing site Airbnb came under scrutiny after a woman had her reservation canceled because of her race.

Dyne Suh – an American citizen had booked a mountain cabin in Big Bear, California, but her host, Tami Barker, turned down her reservation minutes before her arrival.

Barker said through the Airbnb message system: “I wouldn’t rent it to u if u were the last person on earth. One word says it all. Asian.”

When Suh defended herself, Barker snapped back:

“It’s why we have Trump… I will not allow this country to be told what to do by foreigners.”

After a complaint was lodged, the host was penalized by Airbnb and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

Barker was made to comply with anti-discrimination laws, issue a personal apology to Suh, attend a college-level course in Asian-American studies, participate in a community education panel and volunteer with a civil rights organization.

In response to the attack, an Airbnb spokesman told Travel Wire Asia: “Airbnb has zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind. We believe no matter who you are, where you are from, how you worship or whom you love, you should be able to belong in the Airbnb community.

“Discrimination has no place on the Airbnb platform and we have taken strong, decisive and meaningful action to fight against discrimination and bias.”

While California may have tough anti-discriminatory laws, the incident still begs the question: How is Airbnb handling racial bias amid the lesser-regulated sharing economy climate?

Fortunately for Suh, the government of California had reached an agreement with Airbnb to test for racial discrimination and act where necessary. The move was said to “pave the way for stricter regulations and greater public scrutiny”.

The new regulation also marked the first time Airbnb was “giving a regulatory body permission to conduct the kind of racial discrimination audits officials have long used to enforce fair housing laws against traditional landlords”.

According to reports, Airbnb had resisted working with the local Californian government because they consider themselves an independent “platform” and not a business that should have to comply with local laws and requirements. The same sentiment has been echoed by other sharing economy giants including Uber and Instacart.

SEE ALSO: Airbnb gets green light in Japan

In the case of California, local regulations proved a win for everyone, especially for Suh, who shared an emotional video of herself stranded in a snowstorm after her reservation was rejected.

Elsewhere, reports of black travelers being discriminated against by Airbnb hosts were also rife thanks to social media where the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack publicly exposed the problem.

A report last year pointed out how black Airbnb users had their requests rejected, but immediately approved when applying again with a white profile.

Last year, Harvard Business School conducted a study which found “requests [on Airbnb] from guests with distinctively African-American names are roughly 16 percent less likely to be accepted than identical guests with distinctively white names”.

Suh’s case is part of a trend of Airbnb guests who have been discriminated against for racial reasons. Last year, a 25-year-old black man filed a lawsuit against Airbnb when his request was rejected, and then accepted when his profile photo was switched to that of a white man. According to CNN, the user claimed Airbnb “completely ignored him”.

Attorney Ike Emejuru told CNNMoney: “Under the Civil Rights laws, Airbnb qualifies as public accommodation. It serves essentially the same function as a hotel. We are confident there are numerous persons out there who will potentially join the class.”

In response to racial bias among hosts, Airbnb head of diversity and belonging David King said in a statement last year: “We recognize bias and discrimination present significant challenges and we are taking steps to address them. Profile photos are an important part of our community and are one of the many tools that help hosts and guests connect with one another.”

SEE ALSO: Is Airbnb doing enough to penetrate the Chinese market? 

To begin with, the company has put in place policies that prohibit discrimination, bigotry, racism, hatred, harassment or harm against any individual or group. They also pledged to remove from their community hosts who discriminate against guests because of their race or sexual orientation.

Moving forward, the company is also encouraging hosts to ramp up their use of Instant Booking, a feature that allows users to instantly reserve accommodation, much like a hotel.

Skift reported 1.7 million out of Airbnb’s three million listings have currently switched on Instant Booking; hosts who cancel their Instant Books are required to justify their reasons with the company.

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Melanie Meharchand, an Airbnb host based in Monterey, California, told Skift: “From Airbnb’s standpoint, Instant Book means they can avoid some of the subjective pitfalls that have come up, like hosts declining guests of certain ethnicities, religions or sexual orientations.”

On top of that, Airbnb’s new product team will experiment with reducing the prominence of guest photos in the booking process and enhancing other parts of host and guest profiles with objective information.

Perhaps, most effectively, the company will offer new training to help people learn how to fight bias. As the program develops, the company will highlight hosts who have completed this training.

SEE ALSO: Airbnb wants to give stronger voice to property hosts

While still unclear whether the training will be made compulsory across Airbnb’s network of hosts, it’ll prove useful for users to distinguish between hosts who have and haven’t undertaken the program.

At present, while much of Airbnb’s policies and responses have been vague and centered around appeasing all parties with marketing-inclined language, the company is surely on the right track with its intentions to fight racial discrimination.

The acknowledgement of the severity of the problem is important to note, and while the company has been active in addressing those issues, the speed in which they implement their proposed training and policies must be considered if they want to keep underrepresented minorities in their network of users.