The Arbnb bias: When racism happens in unexpected places

A recent study found Airbnb hosts were less likely to accept guests with 'ethnic-sounding' names.

A recent study found Airbnb hosts were less likely to accept guests with 'ethnic-sounding' names. Photo: Stocksy

Few experiences prove that the internet is benevolent rather than destructive like turning up jetlagged at an Airbnb in a foreign city and finding out that a stranger wants to make you feel at home.

For me, a long-awaited trip with my boyfriend to Tokyo was rendered magical when the apartment we rented from a smiling outdoor adventure enthusiast turned out not only to be as cosy as it looked on the listing but minutes away from a canal lined with fiery Japanese maples, rows of miniature bookshops and an izakaya whose owners' bottomless hospitality was outweighed only by their excellent taste in music. Our host left a handwritten note telling us that the neighbourhood was so safe and friendly that locking the doors would be a waste of time. I remember happily thinking that this was the perfect metaphor for a world in which technology was innovative enough to help foreigners connect with a famously fortress-like city and forge the trust to bridge impenetrable cultural differences. I ventured out each day, cynicism at an all-time low.

This promise of making a temporary home in Tokyo, New York or Rio, regardless of your background, class or bank balance, has buoyed Airbnb's growth since its beginning but its forward-looking face is fraying a little at the seams. In December 2015, a study from Harvard Business School, which surveyed 6,000 hosts across five US cities, found that Airbnb hosts were 16 per cent less likely to accept prospective guests with names that sounded African-American, such as Darnell, Rasheed or Tamika than those called Allison, Brent or Kristen, who they presumed were white. This practice spanned every demographic, even as each instance of racial profiling sparked losses of $65 to $100. Suddenly, the 'Bélo', the Airbnb logo conceived as the global symbol of belonging, has already started to look more like the sign of a world whose cosmopolitanism extends to letting strangers crash on its couch but not quite far enough to actually open its mind.

It appears the 'sharing economy' isn't as utopian as it likes to think, writes Neha Kale.

It appears the 'sharing economy' isn't as utopian as it likes to think, writes Neha Kale.

Anyone who's been following the toxic bro culture in Silicon Valley or the sexual assault allegations facing Uber probably suspects that the sharing economy isn't as utopian as it likes to think. But despite this, tracking down a light-filled loft for your Berlin getaway or flicking an app to hail a private driver have become symbolic gestures - they're not just about embracing innovation but about embodying values that are urbane, evolved, borderless. Values that don't subscribe to base, tacky things like judging people by their skin colour or their funny-sounding name.

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The world is ruled by "innovative" communities that we identify with but which prove that racial profiling can happen in the places you'd least expect. In a September 2015 Buzzfeed essay, the poet Jenny Zhang wrote powerfully about white classmates who accused her of trading on her ethnicity to get work published at Iowa Writer's Workshop, the grad school that produced writers like Flannery O'Connor and Raymond Carver. Last year, performer Koraly Dimitriades described the challenges marginalised artists face in the Australian art world. And a December 2014 study by the Social Science Research Network found that at universities - the bastions of innovation - professors were most likely to respond to mentorship requests by white males, while queries from East Asian woman and South Asian men were universally ignored.

In a December 2015 Washington Post article, Emily Badger wrote that the Airbnb study "doesn't imply that Airbnb hosts are any more prone to discrimination than other groups", but that the "platform may enable people to act on implicit bias that many of us have." But it's telling that we can shrug off this "implicit bias" as if it were an inconvenient rash, just a byproduct of being human, but (rightly) label Donald Trump a buffoon for his plans to deport immigrants and mount outraged Twitter campaigns like we did in November when an Apple employee in Melbourne's West ejected six Somali and Sudanese students from his store. In a world in which diversity is good business and prejudice attracts ridicule, the term "racist" doesn't name the ugly foundations that structure our society; it simply absolves us from looking closely at ourselves and taking responsibility for our actions.

"Airbnb is one of the most open, trusted, diverse, transparent communities in the world [and] we have a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination on our platform," said an Airbnb spokesperson in a statement to Bloomberg last month. But it pays to remember that innovative isn't the same thing as progressive - especially when it comes to communities that help us arrive in Tokyo and feel instantly at home or tell us convenient truths about who we like to think we are.