How Racism on Airbnb Threatened My 20-Year Friendship

“Why not book an Airbnb?” That was the suggestion which caused a rift in a long friendship.

Malika Oyetimein and I met in 1996, when we were high school freshmen. Fast forward to summer 2015, and we were planning a trip to Portland, Oregon. I was flying to Seattle, where Malika lives, and then we’d take a bus to Portland to see the hipster utopia that neither one of us had ever visited. We agreed that I would reserve the rental car for our trip, while Malika would book the accommodations.

At the time, I had only used Airbnb once, for a trip to Vancouver—which I also visited during my stay on the West Coast. But the room had been inexpensive and exactly what was promised, and I had heard plenty of other wonderful reviews about the service. I told Malika all this when I persuaded her to book the room on Airbnb. As an added incentive, I had a $100 credit we could use from my American Express card that we could apply to room. Malika was on board. She had heard good things about Airbnb too.

But what I didn’t consider was that it might be harder for her to get access to people’s homes. I’m a white man; she’s a black woman.

How Airbnb failed my friend

Because Malika had never used Airbnb before, she set up a profile and linked up her Airbnb profile with her Facebook account. It showed a clear picture of Malika, and she added a short, upbeat description of herself for good measure. “I filled it out like an online dating profile. I made sure I sounded personal and nice,” Malika told me later. “I wanted to be someone you would want to stay in your house.”

Fortune reporter John Kell (right) and his friend Malika while on their Portland, Oregon trip.Courtesy of John Kell
Courtesy of John Kell

When reaching out to hosts in Portland, Malika—a Seattle-based theater director and MFA candidate in her final year at the University of Washington—mentioned she had finished the first year of her graduate program and was planning a trip to Portland to celebrate.

Malika estimates she tried to book between eight to ten different rooms. She was unable to get us a room.

“Everyone was polite about it,” she told me. But she kept hearing, “I’m sorry it just booked up” or “I am in the process of deleting my profile.”

While continuing with her search, she’d see that rooms she had reached out to were still options that came up as she searched for an Airbnb rental.

Throughout her search, we stayed in touch and she was telling me about her frustrations. The service—or more to the point, the users on it—weren’t willing to rent my friend a room. She knew that I had just booked that room in Vancouver (a process that was speedy as I got instant approvals despite never using the service), and so Malika told me what she thought was the issue: Racism.

A test of my own

Once Malika told me that the problems she was encountering, I decided I would try to book a room in Portland. Looking back, I realize I wasn’t fully processing what my friend was telling me about the service—how messed up it was that the service wasn’t treating her equally, how it made her feel to be rejected over, and over. I reached out to two listings and was approved by both hosts immediately.

Within a half an hour, I’d booked our room. Fast, almost immediate approval. Malika and I didn’t really discuss this—though in retrospect, there seemed to be some uncomfortable silence about how easy it was for me (and impossible for her) to use this platform.

An unspoken rift

Until I started preparing and writing this story for Fortune, I wasn’t aware of how much I’d upset Malika by using Airbnb when she was having such problems. I am disappointed in myself for how I handled the whole situation. I never tried to put myself in her shoes, and I just didn’t understand what she was feeling. “I was upset with you for going and using your white privilege and never having to experience a second of pain or doubt,” she told me.

While she was getting rejected from various hosts on Airbnb, she told me that she kept asking herself if there was something in her profile that made her less desirable. “You didn’t experience a minute of that,” she said, “and you didn’t want to.”

Her criticism stung but she was right. At the time, I didn’t want to be inconvenienced. The room we stayed in was very nice and the Portland host was friendly—though I do recall wondering when he shook our hands if we would have even been there if Malika had reached out instead of me. (To be fair to this host, he wasn’t one of the individuals that Malika had reached out to during her original search. There is no way to know how he would have felt if Malika had tried to book that room).

Looking back, I have so many regrets. I wish I had talked to Malika back then and heard her explain what it felt like to be discriminated against. I also wished I had proposed that we take our money elsewhere and pay for a hotel room.

While researching this story, I apologized many times, and Malika and I are on wonderful terms again.

But Malika also told me she never plans on using Airbnb again. “Why would I go back somewhere where people have told me I’m not wanted?”

“Three white guys” at work

She’s not alone in feeling that way. As more and more black users complained about being shut out of the service, using the trending hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack, rival services were launched.

Now that I’m aware of the pain the discrimination on this platform causes, I need to ask myself: Am I still comfortable using the service to save myself a little money, knowing some of my friends may have problems trying to book the same rooms? I know it is a privilege that I’m even able to ask myself this question in the first place.

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky and his team have publicly acknowledged there there is a problem that needs fixing. Three white guys designed the program but there’s a lot we didn’t think about when we designed it,” Chesky said at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference earlier this year.

And just last week, Chesky sent out an e-mail to Airbnb users (including myself) apologizing for the discrimination that has, in his view, jeopardized the company’s core mission that people “are fundamentally good and every community is a place where you can belong.” Chesky went on to say that beginning November 1, all hosts must agree to a new anti-discrimination pledge, an expanded “instant book” program which allows guests to make reservations without pre-approval from the host, better reporting systems for aggrieved customers, and new technology that would block the calendar for dates that were declined by a host, to make sure those dates aren’t later booked by someone of a different race.

Of course, some potential customers are lost for good. When I asked Malika about what she thought of Airbnb’s efforts to improve the service, she wasn’t persuaded. “It’s a problem that’s bigger than Airbnb. I don’t know how Airbnb would go about making sure that its users aren’t racists.”

But others who have been discouraged may still be interested in trying Airbnb again. The report Airbnb put out last week, written by Laura Murphy—the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington D.C. Legislative Office—found that a majority of the victims of discrimination on Airbnb’s platform wanted to use the site and were hopeful reforms could be put in place to at the very least diminish bias.

Will these changes solve the issue of discrimination for good on Airbnb? Even the report doesn’t make such grand promises.

“These changes are only Airbnb’s first steps,” writes Murphy. “Fighting discrimination will require constant and ongoing work.”

I asked Malika about these changes as she prepares to jet back to Seattle after a short trip on the East Coast. She laughed when I listed some of the promises Airbnb made. Malika said the following: “Airbnb saying ‘Don’t show that you are black and book quicker so they don’t know you are black’ is not changing the fact that people don’t want me in their house because I am black.'”

She points out she had tried Instant Booking a couple times, too—and she was still rejected.


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