Opinion

Trying to appear “not too black” on Airbnb is exhausting

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I would like to live in a world where Airbnb exists. When traveling, my family of four has outgrown 160 sq. ft. hotel rooms. My husband and I like being able to wake up in the morning and make our kids pancakes or toast a bagel, instead of having to rush downstairs to a pricey hotel restaurant or, even worse, order astronomically priced room service. We like to stretch out and have a backyard for the kids to play in on vacation, or as Airbnb likes to put it “live there.” I get Airbnb. I enjoy it.

But I also know what it is like to spend too much of the work day trying to get an Airbnb host to accept you, crafting just the right summary of why you are visiting the area — dropping subtle (or not so subtle) references to graduating from an Ivy League college, being a professor, a lawyer, living in a suburban neighborhood, having small children who attend Montessori school — trying to appear “not too black” to rent to. And I know what it is like to revisit the listing page of a host who has told you his place is booked only to find it is still available.

It’s exhausting. It’s embarrassing. It’s degrading. I want Airbnb to exist only if the company can fix the pervasive discrimination that is infecting its platform. But I am not entirely sure that is feasible. Last week, in a 32-page report that acknowledged the ways in which hosts have used its platform to discriminate against African-American would-be guests, Airbnb released its new anti-discrimination policies. Among other actions, Airbnb’s plans to address discrimination on its site include developing a feature to help prevent hosts from rejecting one guest by alleging that their space is unavailable and then renting to another, by automatically blocking the calendar for subsequent reservation requests for that same trip. Airbnb also indicated that it would work with a team of engineers and designers to experiment with reducing the prominence of guest photos in the booking process.

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