I just wanted to book an Airbnb. How difficult could that be? A series of rejections waiting in my inbox was my answer. “Helen is unable to host your stay,” the first one read. This was surprising. The property was listed as being available. All of the Airbnb listings in my search results were.
A “HUGE, luxury” two-bedroom flat in Dulwich. Semi-terrace half-houses in Forest Hill. A-one bedroom in Peckham. All available, until they weren’t.
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There was the woman whose “sprawling, trendy flat, one-minute from the train station” was listed as being free for the entire month. But when I submitted a request to reserve the place, she sent a chipper rejection: “Sorry but I don’t know the dates I’ll be travelling that month. Hope you find somewhere!”
The cheeriness of the “hope!” and the undercurrent of something decidedly much less cheery, stood out to me as prophetic, which of course it was.
Airbnb profiles require a headshot, inviting the kind of snap judgments that fuel online dating apps like Tinder, Grindr and Bumble. My photo was polished and pleasant: me smiling in Comme des Garçons stripes, naturally lit by the sun, my skin unambiguously Black. My name, an African country. Extra Black.
Booking while black
I was looking to book in late September, hardly high tourist season. The occasion was my parents’ upcoming arrival to visit their soon-to-be born second grandson. Their trip would be several weeks long. So it seemed more sensible to rent a flat local to my house.
I had heard booking while Black could prove tricky. A close friend from Detroit once asked me to write a testimonial for his Airbnb account as he was having difficulty finding a place to stay during his upcoming holiday in Madrid. “Could you be sure to sign the testimonial off with your work title?” my friend asked me. “That will look more impressive.”
This memory fresh in my mind, I sent a message to the last of my rejecters: “I’m sorry to hear the place is now unavailable. If the circumstances change, please let me know.” I signed the note with my name and job title.
Minutes later, I got a response: “Give me 24 hours to try to make this work.” And just like that, the “work” scheduled to be done on the home was no longer an issue.
I could only assume that my alliance with a powerful magazine had assuaged any reservations the owner initially had about accepting my booking – and that whatever those original concerns were, they had been related to my appearance. Specifically, my skin tone (because what else could it be?).
I didn’t follow through with the booking out of principle. But the indignation stuck. I’m accustomed to seeing bigotry online. Usually it comes in the form of inflammatory social media comments attached to ambiguous profile photos.
But with Airbnb, the perpetrators are visible, smiling with nice homes. Homes into which they’re waiting to welcome complete strangers – as long as those strangers aren’t Black. As long as those strangers aren’t me.
The Airbnb rejections also heightened the reality that racism is all around us. Because if that is the case online, it must also be so in real life.
The polite swerves don’t just come from nowhere, they come from the attractive five-bedroom house down the road, or the lovely seeming people you wave hello to on your way home. People with clearly drawn boundaries that fall on racial lines. Not all people. But enough.
Racism on Airbnb
Just months before, Airbnb was under fire when a host kicked five Black men out of her New York townhouse. A video that travelled quickly shortly after it was filmed and posted online shows the woman, “Kate”, asking her unwanted guests: “Which monkey is going to stay on the couch?”
One of the guests, Kenneth Simpson, said it particularly stung because Kate was Asian, an ethnicity also prone to being on the receiving end of Airbnb rejection.
When a law clerk named Dyne Suh tried to rent a California cabin via the website, a host cancelled it several minutes later. “I wouldn’t rent it to u if u were the last person on earth,” she wrote before adding, “One word says it all. Asian.”
When a news network later interviewed Suh about the incident, she was teary: “It stings that after living in the US for over twenty-three years this is what happens. No matter if I follow the law … no matter how well I treat others, it doesn’t matter.”
Make yourself at home – just not our home
Her words were about America, but the snubs here in the UK felt familiar, if a touch subtler.
Airbnb created the illusion of freedom and democracy, even if inequality snaked its way through the information architecture.
Make yourself at home – just not our home. We’re booked. We cannot host your stay.
This is surely a parable of our time.
This is an edited extract from Girl: Essays on Black Womanhood by Kenya Hunt is out now (HQ, £16.99)
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