These New Startups Want to Make the Sharing Economy Less Racist and Sexist
Trying to use services like AirBnB and Uber can be difficult if you're not a white dude.
Photo via Flickr user Alper Cugun.
Much of life on the road is about finding the easiest, cheapest, and most comfortable solution for spending the night. And having spent my life in a touring rock band, I'm sensitive to the small comforts that make travelling better. There's no rulebook for this kind of travel, we're just making it up as we go along. The onset of the sharing economy has made this task of problem solving infinitely easier. Resources like Breather (hourly professional spaces for meetings or just to get away from the other guys), and local apps like Yelp! are literal lifesavers in avoiding food poisoning when on the road.
I'm all for the sharing of our cars on Uber, ideas on Twitter, and stories on Facebook. It's an all-inclusive human economy, enabled by digital interaction. Joining the online community is pretty innocuous: build a profile by adding your name, birthdate, gender, interests, photo, relationship status, job, now reading, now watching, now feeling. But who decides what amount of personal data is necessary for a successful transaction? With Tinder, users are prompted to make a decision based on a small amount of info: Is this pic attractive to me? *swipe*
Traveller Rohan Gilkes was trying to book a rural getaway when his Airbnb experience soured to the extreme. After very positive communications with a host in Idaho, the property was suddenly unavailable to him. He wasn't sure what happened, but had a hunch. Rohan is African-American. He asked a white friend to attempt to make the exact same booking and they were immediately approved. Brutal.
When Rohan initially reported the situation to Airbnb, he says the company "...minimized and excused it. They said the discrimination has to be completely blatant, that the person has to use the n-word or something like that." After Rohan's Medium post went viral, Airbnb reached out again, this time empathetically. "They offered me a free stay, but I guess at that point it felt like a little bit too late," Rohan told VICE. He wanted a safe and respectful alternative, so he co-founded Innclusive (formerly Noirebnb) with partner Zakiyyah Myers.
Booking bias is so apparent that the community doubled down with a second startup, Noirbnb. Touted as a "welcoming platform for people of the diaspora," Noirbnb (not Noirebnb with a E) was founded by Ronnia Cherry and Stefan Grant after a neighbour called the cops on them for being black while Airbnb-ing: the neighbours assumed they were robbers.
Weathering an ongoing PR shit-blizzard, and a pending lawsuit, Airbnb recently addressed discrimination and the effects of unconscious bias in a blog post by their newly hired Director of Diversity, David King III. Last year, the company also implemented an "Instant Book" feature for hosts—which pushes a transaction through, thus preventing the pre-screening of guests.
A highly cited study conducted by Harvard Business School set out to identify unconscious bias by sending booking inquiries to over 6,000 rental properties in various cities. Each inquiry was made twice using different names, "one distinctively African-American and the other distinctively white." They found that inquiries sent using African-American names were 16 percent less likely to be accepted. Researchers didn't even bother with photos—this was based solely on the fictitious Todd McCarthy's desire to book the same room as one fake Rasheed Jackson.
We can't hide being black, or a woman, or anything else when going out in public. That would be like existing in a perpetual state of cosplay, and completely depressing. But the stories of fudging the facts, choosing "more white" profile pics, or limiting available information is a reality for many in the gig economy. It's spurned this new crop of apps and platforms, developed specifically to address negative experience, exclusivity, and abuse.
Toronto-based Aisha Addo decided to start DriveHer, a female-only car share service, after she was creeped out by her taxi driver. "He was asking me if I lived alone," Aisha told VICE, "and I do live alone, so it was a very vulnerable situation, because [it's the middle of the night] and this person is dropping me off at my house."
VICE asked Aisha if she filed a complaint with the taxi service at the time: "This happened back in the day, and I didn't report it because I didn't feel like my voice would be heard." She says discrimination and abuse are ongoing, but that "...no one reports things." According to the stats, only ten percent of sexual assaults are reported to the cops in Canada, while studies show that 51 percent of visible minorities have experienced microaggressions in everyday situations.
When discrimination is under-reported, or not taken seriously, a trending hashtag can help paint a fuller picture. A Twitter search for #AirbnbWhileBlack has spurned an ongoing conversation, with hundreds of Airbnb users sharing their inability to get booked on a service that promotes the tagline: "Belong Anywhere."
When it comes down to it, the shitty users are the ones ruining the gig and/or sharing economy for the rest of us. We want to feel good as we're discovering the world, interacting with new people and, ultimately, spending our money. And until other sharing platforms figure out how to enforce their don't be a dick policies in a meaningful way, the necessity for new apps like Innclusive and DriveHer will, sadly, remain.
Follow Natalia on Twitter