Some African American users of Airbnb suspect that on occasion it’s more than just bad luck when they’ve tried to book a property that seemed to be available only to be told by the owner that it’s no longer free.
The company says it doesn’t tolerate racial or sexual discrimination by those who advertise with them. But some customers say they have had problems and they’ve been using the using the hashtag #Airbnbwhileblack to share their negative experiences of trying to make a booking. Here are a couple of their comments:
One person who got the online conversation going was Greg Selden. He’s 25 years old and lives in Virginia.
When he enquired about one property he was told by the host it was no longer available. But, he says, that when he later continued his search, he found the same space listed as still being available. “At that point I got a little curious, I wanted to investigate and see why he might have told me it was unavailable, but it was still listed,” he told BBC Trending. “And that’s when I made the additional profiles and reached out to him where he actually did end up accepting my request.”
Selden created two fake profiles – one as a white male with the same age and information as his real profile and another as an older white male. He used them to request to rent the same property which he had tried to book before. “When I reached out to the host, he actually ended up accepting both of my requests,” he said.
“Honestly I was a little shocked and disappointed. I wasn’t sure what about my profile was so different – other than the colour of my skin,” Selden told Trending. He said that when he approached the host to raise the matter the man accused him of “playing the victim”.
Selden added: “I proceeded to let him know that I had the additional screenshots showing I requested the same dates under another profile which he accepted.” Selden says he received no explanation from the host.
Trending contacted the host in question and he disputed Selden’s claims. The host said the reason he had turned down Selden’s request was because the requested booking was for a single night and the cleaning required for such a short rental would be a hassle. He added that his wife was in general not comfortable with young male guests staying at the house when he was away. He also said Selden’s profile had no reviews.
As a final note he added it “just didn’t feel right. It was a gut feeling.. I have hosted African Americans before. That gave him no ground to prove that I’m rejecting him based on his race. He is just trying to victimise himself.”
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It’s difficult to know for certain the reasons why some people are being rejected when they try to make bookings on Airbnb. Sometimes hosts say it’s because a regular user has come into town, or a family member wanted to use it, or they don’t accept bookings for just one day.
But one study of the actions of hosts on Airbnb has suggested that there is some discrimination against black customers. In an experiment conducted by the Harvard Business School, around 6,000 requests were sent using fake profiles to test whether or not racial bias existed.
Benjamin Edelman, an Associate Professor at the Harvard Business school, told BBC Trending that they had found “the guests with African American names had a distinctive problem, they were about 15% less likely to be accepted, time and time again.”
So, whose responsibility is it to try to tackle discrimination? Airbnb is a global business covered by anti-discrimination laws, but it doesn’t own the properties featured on the site. So what legislation governs what criteria individual hosts can legitimately use to make a decision about who stays in their home? Anti-discrimination laws differ around the world, which makes the situation very complex.
As Airbnb is based in California, we asked a lawyer there whether Airbnb could be potentially liable in the United States if hosts racially discriminate there. “The Fair Housing Act is a federal statute and it almost certainly applies to a company that’s engaged in making housing available on a widespread basis,” David Oppenheimer told Trending.
“There’s an exception under the Fair Housing Act for boarding houses and roommate situations that might apply to the individual renters but it wouldn’t apply to the company itself. But as to the broad question as to whether Airbnb is potentially liable to a case of discrimination… Yes, they have potential liability.”
So what do Airbnb have to say about this?
They’ve released a statement which says they take the issue of discrimination “incredibly seriously”.
“We have removed hosts from our community who discriminate against guests because of their race or sexual orientation or other factors and we will continue to do so.”
The statement also outlines steps the company has taken to try and stop discrimination, such as unconscious bias training.
Greg Selden told us that he believes Airbnb should strengthen their anti-discrimination policies, but urges hosts to to think about the fact that they might get enquiries from people from different backgrounds. “You should be open to that, and if you’re not open to that, maybe you shouldn’t post it on Airbnb!”
Blog by Emma Wilson
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