When Quirtina Crittenden first tried booking rooms on the shortterm rental platform Airbnb, she kept getting turned down. Then she modified her profile, shortening her name to “Tina” and using a generic landscape photo instead of a portrait—and hosts approved her requests. In 2016, the black 24-year-old created the #AirbnbWhileBlack hashtag to share experiences of racial discrimination on the platform.
The hashtag went viral, and Crittenden discovered that she was far from the only black Airbnb user experiencing discrimination. In fact, a 2016 Harvard Business School study of Airbnb listings found that requests from guests with distinctively African-Americansounding names were 16 percent less likely to be accepted than those from guests with identical profiles but white-sounding names. And not only black applicants but also black hosts face discrimination on the platform. According to a heavily cited March 2017 report by data analyst Murray Cox, white hosts in predominantly black US neighborhoods have earned an estimated total of $159.7 million on Airbnb to date, while black hosts in those same neighborhoods have earned only $48.3 million.
Responding to these findings in July 2017, Airbnb announced a partnership with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to raise awareness of the benefits of home sharing in US communities of color and to give 20 percent of the collaboration’s earnings to the NAACP.
“For too long, black people and other communities of color have faced barriers to access new technology and innovations,” NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson said when the partnership was announced. “This groundbreaking partnership with Airbnb will help bring new jobs and economic opportunities to our communities.”
Thus far, however, details on the partnership are vague. Neither NAACP representatives nor Airbnb director of national partnerships Janaye Ingram could say whether the collaboration would target specific locations, or how the partners would determine which Airbnb revenue resulted from the partnership and therefore would be shared with the NAACP.
Skeptics of Airbnb’s commitment to fighting discrimination point out that the partnership does not help people of color who are not homeowners and who face rising rents as Airbnb brings more visitors to the neighborhood.
“The structure of this relationship makes it hard to tell whether NAACP’s positive comments reflect positive substantive assessment on the merits, or excitement about the money,” says Benjamin Edelman, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the authors of the Harvard discrimination study. Edelman suggests that Airbnb take a less exciting but more empirically proven approach to fighting discrimination: removing guests’ photos and names from their profiles on the platform. Airbnb, however, has responded that “guests should not be asked or required to hide behind curtains of anonymity when trying to find a place to stay.”
Aside from its partnership with the NAACP, Airbnb has implemented more active policies against discriminatory practices. For example, Ingram says that it now offers hosts online training to reduce unconscious bias, though she was unable to detail what the optional course involves. At the same time, at least two startups that offer similar services with a greater focus on inclusivity have emerged: Innclusive and Noirbnb.
Innclusive hides guests’ names and photos. “If you deny someone for particular dates, you’re not able to make those dates available to someone else unless there is some extenuating circumstance,” says Innclusive CEO Rohan Gilkes. Fifty percent of the 200,000 properties listed on Innclusive are cross-listed on Airbnb at the same price range, he says. He doubts that the NAACP’s partnership with Airbnb will be effective: “We personally don’t believe that NAACP has the membership or audience that connects with folks that would typically be open to home-sharing platforms,” he says.
Noirbnb cofounders Jide Ehimika and Stefan Grant are taking a different approach. “Noirbnb doesn’t believe travelers should have to hide their identity to expect to be treated with fairness and respect,” Ehimika says. “We understand the intention behind the recommended measure, but this is part of the reason why the black travel community has been slow to embrace the home-sharing model.” Neither Noirbnb cofounder is worried about competition from the NAACP initiative, noting that they have been working on inclusivity far longer than Airbnb.
Meanwhile, Airbnb hopes to extend its one-year agreement with the NAACP into a longer-term partnership. “Minority guests shouldn’t be limited to a reduced selection of rooms—meaning higher prices, less convenient [lodgings], and just fewer choices all around,” says Edelman. He believes that Noirbnb and Innclusive are admirable for their inclusivity efforts, but that they won’t be able to change the system on their own because Airbnb will continue to dominate the market. “Society would be best served by Airbnb improving practices on its site,” he says.