In 2014, when Airbnb unveiled a new logo and branding, CEO Brian Chesky penned a gushing manifesto about how the home-sharing company was remaking the world. Airbnb, Chesky wrote, wasn’t just about renting a place to stay for the weekend—it was about “the universal human yearning to belong." Airbnb, he said, wanted to create "a place where everyone can feel they belong."
Two years later, it is now very clear that Airbnb is not a place where everyone feels welcomed.
On Wednesday, Airbnb removed a North Carolina host from the platform after he unleashed a slew of racist remarks at a guest who had booked a stay in the host's home. Chesky called the incident “disturbing and unacceptable,” and said that the host had been permanently banned from using the site.
"Racial discrimination is unacceptable and it flies in the face of our mission to bring people together," said an Airbnb spokesperson by email.
This was only the most blatant recent example of racism on the platform. Black Airbnb users have been complaining for years about their troubles booking accommodations through the site, saying that white friends are able to book the same homes that reject them. One black user filed a lawsuit against the company last month for violating the Civil Rights and Fair Housing Acts. A study out of Harvard last year offered empirical proof of the trend, finding that users with black-sounding names were 16% less likely to be accepted when trying to book an Airbnb rental.
These issues are an ugly reminder of just how much prejudice remains in modern society, and a cautionary tale about what happens when you build a user-to-user marketplace that, inevitably, will bring these prejudices to light.
Some users have found ways around biased hosts on Airbnb. Two years ago, Khadijah, a New Jersey professor, was traveling to Sausalito, Calif. for a friend’s wedding. There were plenty of homes in the area that showed up as available for the weekend of the wedding, but every time she tried to book, she was ignored or told the home was not available.
“I started tailoring my messages to drop as much respectability into the narrative as I could, emphasizing that I was a professor,” Khadijah told Fusion. “I thought if I sounded more respectable, it would help me book a room, but it wasn't effective.”
So Khadijah asked her Facebook friends if anyone who was white would be willing to let her use their face.
“A friend in her 60s, a white woman in Philadelphia, lent me her photo,” Khadijah told us. “I got a room pretty quickly after that.”
(Fusion asked Airbnb if it violates the terms of service to use someone else's photo but the company did not answer the question.)
Khadijah doesn’t blame Airbnb for her troubles, but thinks the company should do everything it can to lessen discrimination on the site. “They should create an algorithm to see if people of a certain race are being discriminated against by certain hosts and then send them a warning,” she said.
In fact, Airbnb said in a blog post last month that acknowledged its problems with discrimination that it plans to “fight bias with technology.”
“Our data science teams will closely examine machine learning models and other tech tools we can use to help enforce our anti-discrimination policy,” wrote David King, Airbnb’s newly-hired director of diversity. Airbnb did not answer questions about how it might act on what its data science team finds.
So what can Airbnb do if it does discover that certain hosts are discriminating against certain kinds of users? Will it warn them? Ban them? Put them through the unconscious bias training it recently started offering?
“As a platform with a two-way marketplace, it is impossible to take all bias out of the system," Rafat Ali, the founder of travel website Skift, told BuzzFeed. "I do like what Uber does, which is it won’t show the driver who is requesting the ride until after the driver accepts it.”
Airbnb is already doing a version of that, with a feature called Instant Book. As Airbnb explains in its anti-discrimination post, the feature "helps ensure guests can book an Airbnb listing without prior host approval of a specific guest." This is much like the Uber system, in that the hosts don't see who's going to stay at their home until the booking has already been made.
The advantage of Instant Book is that it eliminates the chance of subconscious bias, such as a host who might choose a white guest over a black one if two requests come in around the same time. Many black users say they only try to book Airbnbs that have Instant Book enabled.
However, it's not foolproof. Hosts still have the opportunity to cancel on an Instant-Booked guest three times per year with no penalties. In the case of the black guest in North Carolina, the Airbnb had already been booked when the host unleashed his racism and said he planned to cancel the reservation. And unlike Uber's similar feature, it's not universal—Instant Book listings make up only a fraction of the total Airbnb universe.
Theoretically, Airbnb could force all hosts to participate in Instant Book. But if it did so, it might lose a lot of them. Home-sharing is a more intimate business than ride-sharing; most people are pickier about who they let sleep in their homes than who they let into their cars. Without the ability to vet requests, some hosts would certainly feel too uncomfortable to use the platform.
One of the questions raised here is the extent to which Airbnb can eliminate racism on its platform. It can certainly take actions that make it harder for racism to surface, by, for example, not showing people’s profile photos to one another at all—in the same way that we don't put our photos on our resumes when applying for jobs.
But even removing user photos wouldn't be a surefire way to erase racism: In the Harvard study, researchers found that names alone resulted in bias. (The fake profiles the researchers created for people of different races didn't include photos.) To get around this, Airbnb could let users employ pseudonyms—but again, that might spook hosts who would be letting a stranger stay in their homes without knowing what that person looks like or what their real name is. Ditching the profile photo could go a very long way towards eliminating bias on the platform, but it also might make users less inclined to use Airbnb at all.
And, honestly, is it a good idea for Airbnb to set up its platform in such a way that a person of color might unknowingly wind up in the home of a virulent racist? Or vice versa? The woman who was verbally abused by the racist Airbnb host in North Carolina told a business school classmate, "I was overwhelmed with the thought of what could have happened if I moved in without him finding out I was black. Would he have assaulted me physically or verbally etc? I just didn’t feel safe anymore."
It has become a Silicon Valley trope that the more companies like Airbnb try to change the world, the more they reinforce the problems in the world they set out hoping to disrupt. Racism in hotel bookings has not been a problem for decades. But Airbnb is now returning us to a version of the Jim Crow era when, if you were black, you needed a race-specific travel guide to offer tips and tricks on how to navigate the white world.
It isn't clear that Airbnb can make the racism on its platform—or in the world—go away.
But the company says it wants to. “[W]e’ve seen how the simple act of sharing a home can unite people from all walks of life,” the company's director of diversity wrote in a blog post last month. “We want to bring people together and fight the hidden biases that can prevent people from connecting.”
Only these biases are no longer hidden—they are staring us in the face. In the end Airbnb has shed light on a problem that exists not only on its platform, but also deep inside our culture.
Update: Airbnb has announced that it has hired a former ACLU executive as a consultant to examine bias on the platform.