Stefan Grant and some friends were staying at an Airbnb in Atlanta when police arrived at the door with guns drawn. Neighbors had called the police believing Grant, who is black, was robbing the apartment.
The incident led Grant to create Noirbnb, an online homesharing service like Airbnb that caters to black travellers. The company, which will launch in the next few months, is one of the companies hoping to make homesharing more inclusive. And they're all struggling to figure out exactly how this will work.
It's clear that homesharing has a racial bias problem. Last year, Harvard researchers Ben Edelman and Michael Luca published a widely cited study on Airbnb that found black guests were 16 percent less likely to have a request approved than their white counterparts. It's been cited by politicians attacking Airbnb and in several lawsuits alleging the company enabled racial discrimination. Only 5 percent of African-Americans polled by Pew research in 2015 said they had used online home-sharing as either a host or guest, compared to 13 percent of whites.
This is a gap that Grant wants to close, and he's not the only one. Rohan Gilkes, a serial entrepreneur with several startups under his belt, had a similar idea when he started a company with almost the same name: Noirebnb. (He eventually changed the name to Innclusive to limit confusion.)
Their missions are so similar that Grant and Gilkes briefly discussed merging. But Grant says he chose to keep his company independent because of conflicting philosophies on how the booking process should work: Gilkes believes the only way to curb racial discrimination in homesharing is by completely hiding names and photos from hosts during the booking process.
Grant thinks this misses the point. "If you're a company that claims to be inclusive, then you shouldn't have to hide yourself," he said. "It doesn't really make sense to me."
But hiding photos is one solution that other companies are looking at, too. In an attempt to clean up its act, Airbnb published an overview of reforms meant to address racism, which also includes a plan to "de-emphasize" photos in the booking process, as Motherboard reported last month. Luca and Edelman said it didn't go far enough, and that hiding photos altogether in the booking process is non-negotiable if homesharing sites are serious about racial discrimination.
But not everyone welcomes this idea.
Shaquille-Omari Bekoe, a 22 year graduate student living in Brooklyn, began using Airbnb last summer. While he's only hosted three times, he's not sure if he'd feel comfortable if his guests' photos or names were hidden. "You want to see who you're staying with," Bekoe said. "It's like online dating for a room."
Jessie Daniels, Professor of Sociology at Hunter College who studies racism on the internet, says the act of hiding photos and names from the booking process marks a "color-blind" approach to race that is part of a larger problem.
"People do not take race into account as they're designing these platforms," Daniels said. "Racism ends up finding them in a way in the platform that results from that supposedly color-blind design."
Gilkes stands by the decision to hide photos and names during booking. He points to sites like Uber that had to change their profile policy after discrimination against black passengers. Instead, he plans on developing trust between users on the website with reviews and verification benchmarks, including driver's license and social media verification.
"People do not take race into account as they're designing these platforms."
Race is not the only contentious factor in the homesharing business. In the past few years, several peer-to-peer room rental, or homesharing, startups have emerged that cater to specialized communities. There's France's Misterbandb, which caters to the gay community, and in Sweden there's Handiscover, one of several startups catering to disabled travellers.
And there's an intersectionality aspect to the their goals. Misterbandb, the service for gay travellers that founder Matthieu Yost says has 80,000 hosts worldwide, features photos prominently. Yost said by phone that racial discrimination hasn't been an issue on the platform yet, but that he's spearheading a branding campaign to promote equality and non-discrimination.
Meanwhile, Sebastien Archambeaud, Handiscover's founder, doesn't blame Airbnb for not having specific enough categories for disabled users, saying Airbnb might be too large to deal with all the communities it houses.
"When you become big and global, it's hard pleasing everybody," he said.
But he added that this failure can be good for entrepreneurs focusing on specific communities. Archambeaud said he has been in touch with Noirbnb to coordinate with a third party that lets hosts advertise rooms on different homesharing apps simultaneously, meaning some of the same rooms may appear on several of the niche services.
Whether photos should be mandated on homesharing sites depends on how people use the service. If Airbnb is for sharing and community as the company suggests, it could make sense to keep photographs in the booking process. But Airbnb is worth $30 billion, has 100 million users worldwide and racks up 500,000 nightly stays, and the allure for many guests is cheap lodging, not social interaction.
Jamilah Jefferson-Jones, a legal scholar at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, says that while Airbnb should hide photos during bookings, smaller niche sites like Noirbnb might be fine keeping them, as they are already attracting like-minded people by design.
Read More: Can Airbnb's New Fixes Prevent Racism?
Jones also said that as niche sites get larger, they should be concerned about discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation, or disability growing unaddressed on their platform, just as it did for Airbnb.
"They need to be vigilant," she said.
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