Airbnb changes its policies regarding racial discrimination…

The other day I got this email from Airbnb giving me a heads up that that they’re updating their terms of service.  One of the terms of service they’re changing involves a new anti-discrimination policy.  Apparently, this new policy, requires Airbnb users not to discriminate based on national origin, gender, marital status or sexual orientation.  The new policy went into effect yesterday and all users are asked to agree with it or forfeit their account.

Even though I know Airbnb is a very popular Web site among travelers, I’ve never actually used it to book accommodations.  Bill and I usually like to stay in hotels when we travel, since it’s usually just the two of us.  We have recently rented vacation homes twice because we brought our dogs on our trips.  We’ve also rented a house for our time in Ireland in a couple of weeks, mainly because it’s less expensive and allows us to stay in a more remote area.  We found all three those places through Booking.com, not Airbnb.

I read that the reason Airbnb’s new policy was created is because some hosts were allegedly discriminating against people of color.  In fact, a Harvard study found that people with names that sounded more “African-American” were having a harder time renting accommodation through Airbnb than people with more European sounding names.  Airbnb is trying to address this issue by forcing its users to agree not to discriminate– at least in the United States.  Apparently, Airbnb is still working on a policy for hosts outside of the USA.  At the same time, there have been at least two Airbnb clones started for and by people of color to address the racism issue some people have experiences while trying to rent through Airbnb.

On the surface, this seems like a really good idea.  Force people to agree to be inclusive and there might be less issues with racism, right?  Unfortunately, I’m skeptical that a policy like this one will be effective.  While a lot of people will honor something they sign in agreement, other people won’t.  They will agree to a policy and come up with other reasons to discriminate.  But hey… at least they have an official policy, right?

Actually, I can totally see why Airbnb had to make this change.  They’re dealing with people who aren’t actually in the hospitality industry but are renting out their residences or rooms in their homes.  When a person is potentially sharing an intimate living space with a stranger, he or she might feel perfectly alright in being more selective about accepting certain guests.  In a lot of ways, it makes sense that people would want to discriminate.  For instance, a host might not want to share living space with someone wanting to use their private home as a place for strangers to have sex.

Besides, sometimes people assume someone’s being racist when they really aren’t.  There could be reasons other than a person’s skin tone or ethnic sounding name that causes an Airbnb host to reject them.  What if the host has a more attractive offer from someone else?  Say, instead of a one night rental, another guest wants to rent for a week?  Would the host be considered racist for choosing the person who wants to rent for a longer period, even if the one night guest is black and the one week guest is white?

On the other hand, being xenophobic while renting out accommodations is not a good business model.  It’s not good business when an Airbnb host harasses a guest with racist epithets.  Good people come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.  It’s not fair to assume someone is a certain way simply due to the way they look or their place of origin.  Apparently, racism has been a significant issue on Airbnb. They have to do something to combat it or risk legal issues.

I’m not sure Bill and I will ever use Airbnb to find accommodations.  Although the prices are very attractive and there is the potential for a great cross-cultural experience, or even meeting new friends, when it comes down to it, we simply prefer accommodations that are less personal, more private, and are more professionally run.  I did see a few unique places on Airbnb a couple of months ago that caught my attention, but in the end, I went with Booking.com because of all the personal “house rules” on Airbnb.  I don’t think I’d feel comfortable paying for accommodations rented out by someone who isn’t really in the hospitality business.  I also don’t necessarily want to share space with strangers, even if it is cheap.

I may change my mind, though… and maybe someday, I’ll rent a property through Airbnb.  If I do, I’ll have no problem agreeing not to discriminate.  We aren’t capable of being hosts ourselves and, even if we were, I have no desire to be in the hospitality industry.  I think it’s very hard to force people to be tolerant, though, and simply forcing people to “agree” to being inclusive is kind of like putting a Band-aid on a gaping wound.  It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the wake of this new user agreement Airbnb has launched.  I’ll be watching.


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