When black Airbnb users first began using the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack to share their stories of being racially discriminated against by white people, the San Francisco-based company tried to insist this it was actually helping black people by incorporating more black neighborhoods into its user base.
Never mind the fact that many of these neighborhoods were historically black but are increasingly being gentrified by people pricing out old residents and then turning their properties into year-round rental opportunities. And never mind that whatever Airbnb said it was doing clearly wasn't making the racism its users were experiencing go away.
Today, though, Airbnb announced a new initiative meant to directly address the widespread problem of racism within its service. Together with Color Of Change, an activist organization co-founded by Van Jones, Airbnb said that it planned to tackle its racism issues through a series of changes, such as de-emphasizing the use of user photos, introducing a so-called "community commitment" that asks users to agree not to be discriminatory, and working with historically black colleges (HBCUs) to recruit more black people who might want to list their homes on the service.
“Corporations like Airbnb usher in exciting, market-changing innovations,"Color of Change's Executive Director Rashad Robinson said in a press release. "But those disruptive technologies can also provide a platform for bad actors to engage in racial discrimination and other civil rights violations."
Airbnb, Robinson continued, would also make a concerted effort to get its own internal house in order, hiring more black employees so that it could finally reach the diversity goals it's been talking about for months now.
The problem with these proposals, though, is that they don't go nearly far enough.
When Airbnb released a transparency report last year about the demographic breakdown of its workforce, literally no one was surprised to learn that—wait for it—63% of its employees were white. Only 2.9% were black. Soon after, Airbnb brought on David King III, who previously led the State Department's diversity outreach programs, as its new head of “diversity and belonging.”
“Instead of arming me with defense mechanisms, my parents taught me to be better than those who treated me differently,” King told WIRED of his experience growing up as one of the only black people in his neighborhood. “That really stuck with me.”
King said that, among other things, Airbnb would "consider" new hiring practices like wiping any gendered or race-specific identifiers from a potential hire's résumé during the interviewing process and requiring that the company actively seek out more people of color for positions. Again, though, these were just "considerations."
Now, the company is once again announcing its commitment to diversity. But it's not enough. Hiring more people of color is a great first step, but doesn't mean all that much if those people merely become statistics for Airbnb to boast about in its next transparency report. What's more, holding up a handful of black employees as proof of how "diverse" a company is only addresses the issue of diversity in the most definitional (and ultimately meaningless) sense.
Airbnb is also ordering its employees to go through "mandatory anti-bias training," but that isn't enough either. Despite all of the fanfare they get, workplace diversity trainings have been repeatedly shown to actually cause more harm than good.
In a recent study published in the Harvard Business Review, Tel Aviv University professor Alexandra Kalev explained how, when faced with training specifically about why discriminating against black people is a bad thing, some white workers felt as if they themselves were being discriminated against.
"We understand why they need to be there," Kalev told The Washington Post. "But we think companies need to be way more reflective about what these [practices] do for their workforce."
Instead, Airbnb should be working towards making itself a more inclusive space. Inclusive in this case means that people of color aren't just being brought in to fill quotas and protected against workplace discrimination, but that they actually feel comfortable, able to thrive, and influence the culture within the company.
There are similar problems with Airbnb's measures to combat racism among its hosts and users. Telling people not to post pictures of themselves for fear that someone might deny them the chance to rent out an apartment because of their race isn't a solution to racism—it's a poorly-applied Band-Aid with no adhesive. Also, it puts the onus on the people being discriminated against to solve the issues being caused by bigots.
Rather than trying to sweep race under the rug or trying to ignore the fact that people operate with racial biases, Airbnb can and should just penalize people for treating each other badly the way its competitor Innclusive does. If a host repeatedly cancels on potential renters of color while also agreeing to rent to white people, flag their accounts. It's as simple as that.
Airbnb says that it's committed to making people feel like its service is meant for them regardless of who or where they are, but words are one thing. Concrete actions are another.