There were a lot of Airbnbs available – until their hosts saw I was black
I just wanted to book an Airbnb. How difficult could that be? A series of refusals pending in my inbox was my response. “Helen is not able to accommodate your stay,” reads the first. It was surprising. The property has been listed as available. All of the Airbnb listings in my search results were.
A ‘HUGE and deluxe’ two bedroom apartment in Dulwich. Half-terraced houses in Forest Hill. One bedroom in Peckham. All available, until they weren’t.
There was the woman whose “sprawling, trendy apartment one minute from the train station” was listed as being free for the entire month. But when I submitted a seat reservation request, she sent a chipper denial: “Sorry but I don’t know the dates of my trip this month. Hope you find it somewhere! ”
The cheerfulness of “hope!” And the undercurrent of something decidedly much less cheerful sounded prophetic to me, which of course it was.
Airbnb profiles require a portrait, inviting the kind of instant judgments that power online dating apps like Tinder, Grindr, and Bumble. My photo was neat and pleasant: me smiling in Comme des Garçons stripes, naturally lit by the sun, my skin unambiguously Black. My name, an African country. Extra black.
Reservation in black
I was looking to book at the end of September, barely high tourist season. The occasion was the imminent arrival of my parents to visit their second grandson who was about to be born. Their trip would last several weeks. So it seemed more advisable to rent an apartment near my home.
I had heard that booking when Black could be tricky. A friend close to Detroit once asked me to write a testimonial for his Airbnb account because he was having trouble finding accommodation during his next vacation in Madrid. “Could you be sure to sign the testimonial with the title of your work?” My friend asked me. “It will be more impressive.”
With that memory fresh in my head, I sent a message to the last of my rejecters: “I’m sorry to hear that the place is now unavailable. If circumstances change, please let me know. I signed the note with my name and job title.
A few minutes later, I received a response, “Give me 24 hours to try to make this work. And just like that, the “work” that needed to be done on the house was no longer a problem.
I could only assume that my alliance with a powerful magazine had allayed any reservations the owner initially had about accepting my reservation – and whatever those initial concerns were, they had to do with my appearance. Specifically, my skin tone (because what else could it be?).
Racism in everyday life
I did not follow up on the reservation on principle. But the indignation remained. I’m used to seeing fanaticism online. Usually, this comes in the form of inflammatory social media comments attached to ambiguous profile pictures.
But with Airbnb, criminals are visible, smiling with beautiful homes. Houses where they wait to welcome complete strangers – as long as those strangers aren’t black. As long as these strangers aren’t me.
The Airbnb releases has also heightened the reality that racism is all around us. Because if this is the case online, it must also be in real life.
Polite spreads don’t come out of nowhere, they come from the cute five bedroom house down the street, or the lovely people you greet on your way home. People with clearly drawn borders that fall on racial lines. Not everybody. But enough.
Racism on Airbnb
A few months earlier, Airbnb came under fire when a host kicked five black men out of his New York townhouse. A video that traveled quickly shortly after being filmed and uploaded shows the woman, “Kate,” asking her unwanted guests, “Which monkey is going to stay on the couch?”
One of the guests, Kenneth Simpson, said it hurt particularly because Kate was Asian, an ethnicity also likely to be the target of Airbnb’s rejection.
When a lawyer named Dyne Suh attempted to rent a California cabin through the website, a host canceled it several minutes later. “I wouldn’t praise it to you if you were the last person on earth,” she wrote before adding, “One word says it all. Asian.”
When a news network later interviewed Suh about the incident, she was in tears: “It stings that after living in the United States for over twenty-three years, this is what is happening. . It doesn’t matter if I follow the law… no matter how much I treat others, it doesn’t matter.
Make yourself at home, but not with us
His words were about America, but the snaps here in the UK sounded familiar, if a little more subtle.
Airbnb created the illusion of freedom and democracy, even as inequalities made their way through the information architecture.
Make yourself at home, but not with us. We are reserved. We cannot accommodate your stay.
It is surely a parable of our time.
In response to Kenya Hunt’s essay, taken from her new book Girl, an Airbnb spokesperson said in a statement:
“We were saddened and concerned to hear about Kenya’s experience and we are trying to find out more.
“Discrimination has no place on Airbnb and we have excluded or blocked 1.4 million people from Airbnb who refused to treat others without judgment. We have also introduced changes so that the host cannot see the guest’s profile picture until the reservation is confirmed. But there is still a lot of work to be done and in partnership with civil rights organizations, we have launched Lighthouse Project to discover and overcome discrimination on Airbnb.
“This alone will not end discrimination, but it is an important step that can help us identify behaviors that would otherwise go unnoticed and ensure that we are continuously working to make Airbnb a place where everyone belongs.” .
This is an edited excerpt from Girl: Essays on Black Femininity by Kenya Hunt, now available (HQ, £ 16.99)