Airbnb Responds to Racism by Tweaking Anti-Bias Policies for Hosts

"When we designed the platform — three white guys — there were a lot of things we didn't think about," Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said.

“When we designed the platform — three white guys — there were a lot of things we didn’t think about,” Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said.

By Sheryl Estrada

"When we designed the platform — three white guys — there were a lot of things we didn't think about," Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said.

Opponents of Airbnb rally at City Hall in New York. REUTERS

The Twitter hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack, filled with accounts of Black people who experienced discrimination when attempting to rent a property from an Airbnb host, was a catalyst in the company’s revision of its nondiscrimination policy.

The San Francisco-based short-term online rental company, with a board of directors that is all male and majority white, released a 32-page report last week. The report outlines how it plans to counteract discrimination on the website based on race, gender, age and even name.

A Harvard University study found that Airbnb requests from guests with “distinctively African American names” are roughly 16 percent less likely to be accepted than identical guests with “distinctively White names.”

Changes include displaying photos of potential renters less prominently, promoting instant bookings and finding accommodations for anyone who has been discriminated against. The company will also implement technology to prevent hosts from booking new guests if they tell another guest their listing is not available for the same period of time.

To help formulate anti-bias policies, Airbnb hired advisers such as United States Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

Laura Murphy, the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington D.C. Legislative Office, wrote the company’s anti-discrimination initiative — Airbnb Community Commitment.

Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky sent an email to hosts and guests outlining the efforts. It said, in part:

“Beginning November 1, everyone who uses Airbnb must agree to a stronger, more detailed nondiscrimination policy. We aren’t just asking you to check a box associated with a long legal document. We’re asking everyone to agree to something we’re calling the Airbnb Community Commitment, which says:

“We believe that no matter who you are, where you are from, or where you travel, you should be able to belong in the Airbnb community. By joining this community, you commit to treat all fellow members of this community, regardless of race, religion, national origin, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age, with respect, and without judgment or bias.”

Story on Discrimination Goes Viral

At the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in July in Aspen, Colorado, Chesky told attendees what worried him was “the discrimination we are having on our platform.”

“When we designed the platform — three white guys — there were a lot of things we didn’t think about,” Chesky said. “There are racists in the world and we need to have zero tolerance.”

In May, Rohan Gilkes, who is Black, published an essay on about discrimination he experienced when attempting to book a rental on Airbnb in Idaho. Gilkes posted his photo, information about himself and the dates he desired to rent a cabin, which the website said were available.

The host responded she was going to use the cabin and it wouldn’t be available. Gilkes then changed his dates of travel in hopes of securing the rental. But the host never responded. He then asked a friend, who is white, to request the same cabin on the same dates. The host immediately approved, saying her plans changed and the cabin would be available for rental.

“Moral of the story: Last time I’ll be using Airbnb until they fix this widespread issue (they said they are addressing it and will come up with a solution),” Gilkes wrote.

The story went viral. As a result, Chesky said he wanted to do more than just “address the issue” to cover company liability. He wanted to find a way to end discrimination on Airbnb.

“If we tried to ‘address the issue,’ I think we’ll be on the wrong side of history,” he said. “We can drive change the rest of world will mirror.”

Airbnb plans to make its anti-bias training program available online and intends to highlight hosts who participate. All staff must receive anti-bias training.

The company has also introduced hiring rules created to increase diversity among senior-level positions and said it will retrain customer service representatives on its diversity policy.

Airbnb’s new agenda is receiving mixed reviews. Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, an anti-discrimination organization, said Airbnb’s plans are a victory for activists and individuals who sparked the protests.

However, Ben Edelman, the lead author of the Harvard Business School report, is doubtful the new policies will be successful.

“The natural approach is to conceal the information about race that is giving rise to discrimination,” Edelman said.

He wrote in an assessment, “Preventing Discrimination at Airbnb,” the solution is to “limit the distribution of irrelevant information that facilitates discrimination.”

Jamila Jefferson-Jones, who teaches law at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, said profile pictures remain an issue.

“I think that profile pictures should either be eliminated or only shared after the booking is confirmed [and] that names may need to be treated the same way,” Jefferson-Jones said.

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  • I think obscuring the names and other identifying information would go the furthest to ensure no bias when considering whether or not to rent to someone.

    I’ve advocated for something similar in HR Hiring practices. Obscure information from hiring managers until the candidate is screened and booked for the interview. That way you are only looking at qualifications and experience. It won’t stop bias during the interview, but at least the candidate would get their foot in the door before the resume was tossed.

  • I’m going to inject a bit of levity to this story by citing Dave Chappelle. In one of his stand ups, he joked that all Black people need that one White friend for when “sh-t goes down”. Apparently, that idea can be extended to obtain Airbnb rentals.
    At the end of the day, we have to try and set up our own version of Airbnb so race-based discrimination is eliminated

    • At which point we’ll be vilified for doing so… because how dare we exclude ourselves! (Why are there historically black colleges? Why are there award shows for black people? Etc… ad nauseum)

  • Richard while I love the levity, I think that confronting the issue rather than creating our own version of the product is the ultimate answer. We have worked to build this country and invested in it with the same (and in some instances, with more) blood, sweat and tears. Are we not tired of a two tier system within the country we live in (theirs and ours)? The answer is of course we are. We must out racism wherever and whenever we see it, hear of it or experience it. ENOUGH! Let’s rise up vocally and en mass, calling out the corporations who do nothing to confront the problem and recognizing the corporations which do. We spend an awful lot of money on stuff. Let’s spend it where it is appreciated (at least on the surface) and bypass the entities where we know for sure that it is not.

  • LaTanya Sobczak

    Here’s the thing tho. If i am going to stay in someone’s home, I want to know if they don’t want Black people to stay there. I don’t want to be uncomfortable on vacation and definitely don’t want to pay someone money to treat me like I’ll steal the silver. Setting me up to stay with a racist isn’t doing me any favors. Hopefully the new policy will weed those people out.

    • Are the hosts actually staying there with you when you secure lodging through Airbnb? All of the situations of which I am aware involved the owner only being present — at most — to let you in at the beginning of your stay and to get back the key at the end.

      • Yes, renting an entire home is just one of the options on Airbnb. Many people just rent out a room of their home.

  • This is not surprising. This just shows the absolute need for DIVERSITY. A board full of white males inevitably would not think of each and every scenario that could result with their hosts. However, a diverse board would have. That is what diversity does. – it brings a rich, productive, and efficient variety of ideas, thoughts, talents, solutions, backgrounds, points of view, weaknesses and strengths to a team, unit, group, department, office, workplace or board of directors.

    When will people start to realize that we do better WITH EACH OTHER? ALL OF US HAVE SOMETHING VALUABLE TO CONTRIBUTE. Diversity & inclusion is the name of this game!

  • I’m glad that the Airbnb board recognized that they were a group of white males that didn’t think of certain issues that might arise, like discrimination. The point is, they acknowledge it and are working on making the situation better. I applaud their efforts however; I hope they understand there is still more work to be done.

  • Stephen J. Barden

    I agree with Ben Edelman, it would be much better and easier to simply excise potentially discriminatory information in the first place. I will admit that providing photos after the decision has been made is probably a good idea so that the renter can inform the neighbors, “these people will be staying at my home at my invitation so don’t call the cops.”

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