The Race to Fix the 'Airbnb While Black' Problem
Like many travelers making vacation plans for the summer, Rohan Gilkes, a black, 40-year-old tech entrepreneur from Tampa, Florida, in May turned to Airbnb to find a place to stay. Yet Gilkes was confused when his request for an Airbnb rental in Idaho for five days in July was denied multiple times by the same host, who eventually stopped responding altogether. Gilkes’ confusion turned to shock when his white friend was immediately approved for the same request.
Gilkes soon found that his experience isn’t unusual for people from diverse backgrounds. “If you want to book an Airbnb and you are black, you are gay, you are trans, you have a name that is ‘Muslim-sounding’—if you fit into these groups and other ones, you have to hide who you are in some way to feel like you have a good chance of booking that place,” Gilkes told TakePart.
Now Gilkes has become one of a handful of savvy technologists and entrepreneurs who are starting alternatives to Airbnb geared toward providing a safe space for diverse travelers.
Gilkes teamed up with Zakiyyah Myers, a black, 40-year-old business strategist, to form Noirebnb, a travel-lodging service modeled after Airbnb. Noirebnb, said Gilkes, is open to everyone and aims to decrease discrimination against guests who are more likely to be refused service because of their racial, ethnic, or sexual identities.
Gilkes’ experience isn’t an isolated one. In a study released in December, researchers from Harvard University found that hosts denied requests from potential guests with black-sounding names 16 percent more frequently than they rejected their counterparts with “distinctly white” names.
Things don’t always run smoothly for diverse travelers, even when their Airbnb requests are accepted. That’s why Stefan Grant, a 27-year-old musician and producer from Washington, D.C, and Ronnia Cherry, a 30-year-old producer and designer, formed Noirbnb last October. Neighbors called the police on Grant and Cherry while they were staying in an Airbnb rental home earlier that month during their performance at the A3C music festival in Atlanta.
Grant told TakePart he thinks the neighbors assumed they were breaking into the house. However, when the police arrived, Grant and Cherry clarified the situation, and they took photos with the officers. The photos were shared widely across the internet, and Airbnb representatives reached out to them immediately.
“Originally they offered us some vouchers for future bookings, but we kind of knew that wouldn’t really solve the issue, so that’s when we conceptualized Noirbnb,” Grant said. He and Cherry were inspired to take action when they realized other people had been facing similar situations but couldn’t find ways to fix them.
Airbnb did not return TakePart’s request for comment. "We can't control all the biases of all of our users but we want to make clear that discrimination is against everything we stand for," Airbnb said in a statement to The Washington Post in early June.
Gilkes told TakePart that when he reported the incident about the rental in Idaho, Airbnb representatives told him he’d be contacted by an appropriate department. After two weeks of silence, he turned to social media and found others sharing similar experiences using the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack. He subsequently posted his story on Medium and received widespread support. Gilkes said Airbnb reached out to him the next day.
“It was a very nice conversation the second time,” Gilkes said. “They were apologetic, they offered me a free stay, and they asked for my input on what they could do better. I just felt that it was a little bit too little, too late, and I decided to do what I’m doing now.”
For Noirebnb, Gilkes and Myers are cultivating hosts who want to offer their residences to people with diverse backgrounds. So far, about 25,000 participants—travelers and hosts—have registered with Noirebnb, said Gilkes. He and Myers plan to launch the company later this summer in a few cities on the East Coast and will expand as more hosts sign up in different cities around the world. He said people who want to be hosts are contacting him daily to offer their homes to travelers from diverse backgrounds.
“You’ll see that there is a movement of frustrated people, and many of them are telling the same story,” Gilkes said. He believes it’s become harder for large companies to sweep discrimination under the rug because social media allows victims to share their stories publicly.
“It’s very difficult to police intention and things like that, so I understand it’s a difficult problem,” Gilkes said. “I do feel though that the part of this that is 100 percent within Airbnb’s control is how they react to incidents that are reported to them.”
Gilkes said he initially hoped to partner with Airbnb to solve the recurring cases of alleged discrimination but wanted to see changes to the service sooner than the company could make them happen. That’s when he decided to develop his own platform.
“Instead of begging for change, waiting for change, and just being passive, at some point, you have to take action and make the change that you want to see happen,” Gilkes said.
Grant said that in late 2015, Airbnb flew him and Cherry out to its headquarters in San Francisco to discuss how to prevent similar incidents in the company, but their ideas weren’t implemented to the degree they hoped.
“By that time, it was a couple of weeks later, and I guess things had kind of died down in the media a bit, and I guess they were thinking it would just kind of go away on its own. But we told them our main thing was making sure that what happened to us didn’t happen to anybody else,” Grant said. “We kind of foresaw future issues happening with discrimination, and we told them that our situation wasn’t really an isolated case. I’m not sure if they didn’t believe us or just didn’t want to take it seriously.”
Grant and Cherry said they have not decided on a launch date for Noirbnb yet. The founders of both companies told TakePart that they’re interested in merging their businesses, but if they don’t end up collaborating, one company will have to change its name to avoid confusion, they said.
“You’ve got to solve problems head-on and solve them directly,” Grant said. “That’s kind of why we just decided to do it on our own.”