An Airbnb host who canceled a woman’s reservation using a racist remark has been ordered to pay $5,000 in damages for racial discrimination and take a course in Asian American studies.
Dyne Suh, a 26-year-old law clerk, had booked Tami Barker’s mountain cabin in Big Bear, California, for a skiing weekend with friends in February, but Barker canceled the reservation by text message minutes before they arrived,stating: “I wouldn’t rent it to u if u were the last person on earth” and “One word says it all. Asian”.
This is the first time an Airbnb host has been penalized for racial discrimination under a landmark agreement between the San Francisco-headquartered accommodation marketplace and the California department of fair employment and housing (DFEH), announced earlier this year. The agreement allows the regulator to test and penalize Airbnb hosts for racial bias.
In addition to paying monetary damages and taking a college-level course in Asian American studies, Barker must agree to comply with anti-discrimination laws, make a personal apology to Suh, participate in a community education panel and volunteer with a civil rights organization.
“We were thinking pretty creatively with this agreement,” said Kevin Kish, director of DFEH. “The law tends to be backwards-looking, focusing on compensating people for harm. We’re interested in remedies that repair harm and transform relationships.”
Suh booked Barker’s place for a long weekend with her fiance in February 2017 a month in advance for $250 a night. When Suh later asked if it was OK to bring two friends and two dogs along, Barker said it was fine but the group would need to pay an additional $50 a night, according to screenshots of their text messages.
On the day of the booking, the foursome drove for hours in the rain and snow to Big Bear. Minutes away from the house, Suh texted Barker to let them know they were close and to confirm the cost of the stay. According to Suh, Barker then denied she ever agreed to having two extra guests and canceled the reservation, despite Suh sending her screenshots of their earlier agreement.
When Suh said she’d complain to Airbnb about the racist remark, Barker replied: “It’s why we have Trump … and I will not allow this country to be told what to do by foreigners.”
In an emotional video immediately after the incident, Suh said: “I just feel so hurt. People thought: ‘Oh, with the election of President Obama racism is over in this country.’ No, it’s very much alive, it exists and it could happen to anyone.”
“It stings that after living in the US for over 23 years this is what happens. No matter if I follow the law … no matter how well I treat others, it doesn’t matter. If you’re Asian, you’re less than human and people can treat you like trash.”
After Suh complained, Airbnb carried out its own investigation and banned Barker from the platform.
Suh also complained to DFEH, leading to a separate investigation, mediation and an agreement between the two parties, negotiated last week. The idea of making the host attend the Asian American studies course came out during mediation sessions.
“A lot of times when we see bias incidents it involves a lack of understanding of the experiences and histories of a particular group of people,” Kish said. “This was a creative way to address that core underlying cause of the bias.”
“We want there to be strong anti-discrimination protections and preventions of harm, but we recognize that the world isn’t divided into good guys and bad guys. Humans have biases and we also need to recognize that humans change.”
Barker’s lawyer Edward Lee said in a statement that his client was “regretful for her impetuous actions and comments” but pleased to have resolved the matter with Suh and the DFEH “in a manner that can hopefully bring a positive outcome out of an unfortunate incident”.
Airbnb allowed the DFEH to regulate it for racial bias following a 10-month investigation based on a growing number of reports suggesting hosts regularly refuse to rent to guests due to their race, a problem exposed in 2016 under the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack.
Until that point, Airbnb, like other “sharing economy” companies including Uber and Instacart, had repeatedly resisted industry regulations, arguing that it was a “platform” and not subject to local laws and requirements that apply to similar businesses.
Under the agreement, Airbnb allows the government to test for racial discrimination by hosts in California who have been subject to discrimination complaints and have three or more listings.
The “fair housing testing” echoes the process DFEH investigators have used in the traditional rental market where black and white applicants, with otherwise identical backgrounds, are both sent to try and secure a lease from a landlord. With Airbnb, investigators can set up fake accounts and make reservation requests to hosts to see if they are discriminating.
Kish hopes that this first case will send a message to hosts: “We’re watching,” he said. “But we’re willing to be creative.”
“We are interested in facilitating the types of outcomes that allow people to not only be compensated for harm but transform their relationships with each other and their communities.”
Airbnb did not respond to a request for comment.
- This article was amended on 13 July 2017. A previous version of the standfirst incorrectly referred to Dyne Suh as the Airbnb host; she was the victim of host Tami Barker’s discriminatory remark.