Airbnb While Black: This is America and Our Global Community
Recently, I completed a 3-week traveling excursion throughout South-East Asia. I decided to take the trip after completing a doctoral degree from Howard University. There were many destinations that had been on my bucket list, such as Thailand, and like many graduates who had gone through hell and high water to receive their degrees, I believed this trip would be the perfect ending to what had been an academically rigorous and at times an unnecessarily tortuous process. My plan was simple: party like a rock star in Thailand, eat lavishly and enjoy adventures in Bali, and end with a shopping spree in Hong Kong.
Overall, the trip was amazing. I had achieved everything I set out to complete, plus more. I got the chance to spend a couple of hours bathing, feeding and riding elephants. I went to restaurants and ordered several high-quality drinks and plates of food, while never spending more than $15 at a time. I did all of this while simultaneously meeting amazing new people that I’ll never forget. I would encourage everyone to travel throughout South-East Asia.
Moreover, I have been to over 15 countries and one of the most popular questions my friends and family ask me are: 1) how can you afford to travel while being a graduate student; and 2) how do you find time to travel while being a graduate student? Once I relinquish any concerns about me being a drug-dealer or sugar baby I tell them my go-to accommodations for saving money are either hostels or Airbnb. Now, I know some people, especially people of color (POC) don’t feel comfortable at hostels or have this completely unhealthy idea of a hostel (dirty rooms and murderous attempts on your life), but I have enjoyed them. Hostels are known to lack diversity, and I have experienced first-hand being one of the only POC in these spaces. Although I understand individuals’ reservations about them, I assure you if you’re willing to try it, I can offer you helpful tips and suggestions.
As we all know, when traveling, especially on a budget, you are limited to very few options. Most often these options consist of either staying with a friend or at a hotel, hostel or an Airbnb. For most people, Airbnb has become an affordable safe haven for both experienced and non-experienced travelers. To be completely fair, Airbnb does offer a ton of great attributes to travelers both domestically and internationally. For example, you can request and filter different features to your liking, host huge gatherings in places you could never actually afford or be as fiscally responsible as your heart desires. During my South-East Asia excursion, I decided to stay at a hostel my first week and finish the last two weeks in Airbnbs. For the most part, my experience with Airbnb has been positive, until my most recent trip to Bali.
Like with the standard process, I requested a place through Airbnb and the host approved my stay. Our host was a couple that had over 500 reviews stating that they were great “SuperHosts,” who offered amazing breakfast (which turned out to be two eggs), conversation and anything else you could imagine. Upon first meeting the couple, they were nice and appeared to be friendly. I and a close friend had just come from a rafting trip, and we saw them in passing. We greeted each other, and the male host mentioned how excited he was to make us breakfast the following day. As promised, we both ate the mediocre breakfast everyone raved about in the reviews and struck up the typical conversation you have with strangers when you’re traveling. While eating, he told us if we needed ANYTHING…I mean ANYTHING….to call him. This ranged from activities and basic inquiries to calling him late at night if we felt unsafe. We exchanged WhatsApp information and throughout the trip asked very minimal, reasonable questions.
We only interacted with him twice but on both occasions felt some microaggressions, which we would later find out were actually well-disguised racial undertones (think the movie “Get Out”… don’t ignore your intuition). We found out that like most venture capitalists he had a number of properties, invested in bitcoin, and had a native Balinese person working on his property for him. We interacted with his worker and directed most, if not all, of our questions towards him and his friend. They helped us book activities and taxis and recommended several great options for us throughout our stay. There were many things to complain about, but when we left a review we only pointed out the lack of reliable internet, which became one of our biggest mistakes.
My friend and I left Bali, and just two days later I opened an email in a Harry Potter themed restaurant (highly recommend) in Hong Kong that left both of our mouths literally wide open. It was the most false, distasteful, and malicious review I have ever read about myself. To say this person hit below the belt was and still is an understatement. The first two sentences started off with “I just cannot recommend (my name) and her accompanying friend to anyone. They were amongst the most annoying guests we’ve ever had,” and it continued to go downhill from there. We felt some microaggressions when we interacted with him but ignored it like most POCs do to 1) feel comfortable; and 2) avoid anything that could potentially disrupt our trip. To say we were pissed would be another understatement. We know that POCs face discriminatory practices in our everyday lives throughout a majority, if not all social institutions (i.e., criminal justice system, educational system, labor market, you name it…we’ve been racially discriminated against).
Moreover, the traveling patterns, or lack thereof, by African Americans are by no means consequential and can be traced back to a history of enslavement and several years of Jim Crow segregation laws, where blacks faced violent state-sanctioned racial discrimination. To put it plainly, black people weren’t just prohibited from using restrooms, eating at restaurants, or staying at hotels. They also risked the possibility of being raped, attacked, lynched, or even murdered while traveling. As a result, this has created a very contentious relationship for black people while traveling that has manifested into the fear of traveling to unknown places, fear of experiencing racial discrimination, and a fear of one’s safety. Although it is completely and utterly exhausting and frustrating to plan and travel hundreds of miles just to be re-victimized, the possibility is always there. Unfortunately, this is America and also our global community.
Back to the story, to be mature, we decided to forego interacting with the host in order to diffuse the situation and directed our frustrations towards Airbnb, assuming they would resolve the issue. Boy, were we wrong.
After writing our response to the “SuperHost’s” nasty review, we decided to call Airbnb and express our frustrations. If you’re familiar with Airbnb, then you know they have a history of racially discriminatory problems from other POCs being hosted. Some stories have even made the news, like this one and this one, and there has event been a Twitter hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack detailing horrendous stories of racial discrimination experienced by black people while using Airbnb. Needless to say, they did nothing. Well not nothing, our “case manager” actually read the review and was also appalled but said she couldn’t do anything because “he didn’t violate their discriminatory policies.” To which, I responded, so basically, you can pay your host to not only treat you horribly but also make false accusations in their review of you, which Airbnb has the power to remove, but since they didn’t explicitly call you a nigger or say any other racial slurs, it will not be removed.
At the very least, I wanted the review removed. POCs face enough discriminatory issues, especially while traveling due to outlandish stereotypes and outright racist assholes. In a study conducted by the Harvard Business School, they found Airbnb hosts were 16 percent less likely to accept African American guests relative to identical guests with distinctively white names. Airbnb is no stranger to these allegations and has even been sued. You would think its policies about removing nasty reviews would be more lenient, especially for POC. This was far from the truth; the “case manager” only offered her apologies and a $25 coupon.
I don’t want to discourage POCs from traveling around the world and experiencing different cultures, but Airbnb’s business practices need to continue to be exposed—especially it’s preservation of structural racism against POCs. POC work hard for our coins with the expectations of being treated cordially and fairly by the hosts that use the platform. The company needs to have better policies in place to protect their customers. In my situation, they provided neither—they only offered a scripted, apathetic apology and $25. I will not patron this corporation and I hope you will consider poc-friendly alternatives such as Innclusive or Noirbnb.
Bottom line: Airbnb doesn’t care about POC and isn’t doing any work to break structural racism or at the very least mitigate discriminatory practices towards POC. I refuse to use them again and hope you will too.
If you have also faced similar discriminatory experiences, please share. Stay hydrated and blessed. Always remember Zora Neal Hurston’s poignant wisdom: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”