“It is good people who make good places.” ~ Anna Sewell
I once considered myself a homebody. After finishing graduate school – the first time – marrying Larry, and getting a job in Northern Virginia that required extensive traveling, my time on the road and in the friendly skies increased dramatically. There were fewer days I went home at the end of the conventional workday and more where I headed to board a flight originating from or destined to DCA. I heard Oprah say once she believes one’s home should be a place that rises to greet you as soon as you enter the doors of it. I believe that. It is my opinion, the founders of Airbnb had this in mind when they invented the concept of living in other people’s homes while you travel.
Officially, “Airbnb uniquely leverages technology to economically empower millions of people around the world to unlock and monetize their spaces, passions and talents to become hospitality entrepreneurs.” One may think “…[monetizing] their spaces, passions, and talents…” can be interpreted as offering their homes to travelers or those relocating to new places as a place that rises to greet them as they walk in the door. Many of the Airbnb spaces I rented in Seattle have succeeded in doing just that.
At the outset of May 2018, Larry and I sold our Northern Virginia home and most of our belongings. We packed light for our move to the Pacific Northwest, only holding on to those things that were most meaningful. I left Washington DC for Seattle in early May – turning my journey into a cross-country five-day road trip. Larry – who is on a work-related adventure in Mexico City with our two dogs in tow – will join me in Seattle at the end of June 2018.
Before choosing a neighborhood in which to rent an apartment – and after we decided to wait on purchasing another home – Larry suggested I stay in a few Airbnb properties in different Seattle neighborhoods. This would be a crash course of sorts in learning about each neighborhood and whether it fits us. I was immediately reluctant to the idea – partly because of my affinity for hospitality standardization provided by Hilton; partly because I immediately figured my experiences with Airbnb would be vastly different from Larry’s. So far, I have been wrong about the latter. As I compose this blog, I am renting my last Airbnb – seven of seven properties. I chose properties located in five different Seattle neighborhoods, those that came highly recommended by friends, colleagues and acquaintances. They include Pioneer Square, Downtown Seattle, Wallingford, Columbia City, and Capitol Hill (two Airbnb properties). We ended up renting an apartment in South Lake Union – funny, I know.
What have I enjoyed about Airbnb over Hilton – the brand of hotel with which I am most satisfied?
- I feel as if I am at home – from a cozy and “escape the throes of the day” perspective.
- There are no loud hotel patrons staggering past my hotel room during the wee hours of the day.
- It appears the money we spend goes (or most of it) directly to the owner/host.
- The cost of an Airbnb is less than that of most hotels in the same area.
- I have been able to buy groceries, cook, and do my laundry all in one place (most of the time).
- I have a sense of being more fully immersed in the city as a resident instead of a visitor.
- I am exposed to the design and furniture placement ideas of my Airbnb hosts in living spaces like those Larry and I will have.
Why I am skeptical of my continued interest in using Airbnb?
Standardization of Hotel Chains. I like knowing there will be a specific brand of towels with recognizable characteristics. I appreciate knowing the mattress will be within a familiar range of firmness. I like the process of checking into my hotel room with a digital key – where I bypass the counter and use my cellphone to enter and exit my hotel room, parking garage, and other hotel amenities. The omnipresence of multinational hotel chains in almost any city I chose to visit is reassuring. I like to earn Hilton points.
While the variability of an Airbnb property is to be appreciated for the exposure to regional home decor, the different types of homes, and the immersion in residential neighborhoods off the beaten path, some Airbnb properties can veer too far into being eclectic. The language hosts use to describe their properties can be ambiguous, at times intentionally misleading. For instance, Larry and I decided to rent an Airbnb in Chicago a while back. The host misrepresented the type of property he was seeking to rent – it was a room when he advertised it as an entire home. He provided suspiciously specific steps to take during check-in which led me to believe he was offering an Airbnb property in violation of his apartment lease. Once we exposed his tired chicanery, he refused to refund our money.
After telling him our next step included notifying management of his apartment building and not exchanging another word via the Airbnb app messenger, his tough guy responses took on a more accommodating tone and the charges on our credit card were timely reversed. Was that sequence of events even necessary? Why could he not simply follow the rules? Why did he lie and only took responsibility for said lie (not falsehood or incident of misspeaking – lie) when we threatened to bring a third party into this avoidable foray? Yet, if we did not fight for what was right and hold him accountable, he would not have given it a second thought to write an Airbnb review lying about my being “an impossible ‘urban’ client” or “lacking ‘fundamental’ understanding of the shared economy” or “angry” or “not sharing his values” or some other type of projecting, trite nonsense. That sort of unnecessary drama does not happen at Hilton. Sure, not every Airbnb host is like the buffoon from Chicago yet enough of them are.
Racism. The United States of America has a problem with racism; no aspect of the American experience is impervious to bigotry and racism – including Airbnb. Admitting this does not invalidate the many things we do well as a consumer-driven economy. I feared I would be treated unjustly by Airbnb hosts – given many of them are white – solely because of my skin color. Just because I am educated, gainfully employed, married to a white person and live in a so-called liberal bastion in the far northwest reaches of the contiguous United States do not mean my experiencing racism no longer happens. Hell, as Senator of Illinois, former President Barack Obama talks about being “door-clicked,” and he is far more accomplished and well known than I. Why not give Airbnb hosts the benefit of the doubt? Because the company has given me reasons not to do so. Tit for tat you say? Grow-up.
However, I did decide to rent Airbnb properties because my partner Larry felt it was a good idea – with heightened awareness a host may lie to me about the availability of their property (which did not happen) because I am black. Surprisingly, one host cut his rate because I rented his space for an extended period. Lying about a property’s availability is not a crime as many would retort yet refusing services because of someone’s race is. Also, this brand of refusing service is not to be confused with Airbnb hosts simply deciding not to rent their properties because of free will or having agency as a budding hospitality entrepreneur. Motive matters. There has been a history of the company’s hosts lying about spaces’ availability – founded on racial discrimination. They were reveal by the so-called liberals at Harvard University to have denied potential clients with “black-sounding” names spaces that were available for rent while granting them to potential clients with “white sounding names.” Neither the ability to pay nor potential clients’ ratings had anything to do with this refusal.
You see, racism ruins everything for everybody. Calling out racism does not; doing racists things do.
What can be done about it right now?
As an Airbnb host, lady walking down the street clutching her purse, or guy at the ice cream store who violently and reflexively yanks his hand back because he fears I will touch it and turn him black, give non-white people the benefit of the doubt. Stop lying to the person in the mirror that your notions and ways of engaging non-white people are silly things you do to all people you do not know very well. Stop. Lying. You do it because you are afraid of something that should not invoke fear. Lying or otherwise hemming and hawing about racist behavior (the emphasis is on the behavior not the value of a person’s soul) makes you look insane, not “woke” or as if you have “plenty of black friends” or “you obviously voted for Barack Obama.”
All recipients of your behavior already see it for what it is, racism. You are not clever. You do not look resolute. You sure as hell do not look superior any any sense of the word. Oh, and what’s in your heart is irrelevant. I say that because many racists’ apologists respond to accusation of racism with “you cannot know for sure he is a racist, you do not know what is in his heart.” What is within the depths of your heart is irrelevant and a transparent attempt to avert responsibility. What you present to the world matters more, not an elusive, possibility non-existent twinge of love you have for all humanity.
Luckily, we are a forgiving bunch, even if we curse you out because of your transgression(s). Consider the victims of the Charleston church massacre. I know, what a journey we are taking in this blog from my having a great Airbnb experience in Seattle to a Harvard University study highlighting what many of us already knew about racist Airbnb hosts to a murderous rampage in the low country of South Carolina. The victims of the senseless murders forgave Dylan Roof who is an unrepentant self-congratulatory white male supremacist. Sure, being profiled by an Airbnb host is nowhere nearly and heinous as having a relative or friend fall victim to a mass shooting. I am not making that comparison. I am speaking to the power of forgiveness, even when doing so may not be easy, politically expedient, or something many believe the perpetrator(s) of bad behavior do(es) not deserve.
For the white people who already get it and want to know how to help and make things better, consider stamping out racial indifference you see in your relatives, friends, colleagues, neighbors. Help them refrain from judging books by their covers, so to speak. Negative connotations and stereotypes – while may be rooted in a modicum of truth – are almost always not the entire story. Would you want to experience a world that solely engages you from a point of fixating on the worst of things you may or may not have done? Would you want to experience an economy that decides to shut you out solely based on how your name is spelled or pronounced, without considering any other more relevant details about you?
Encountering the Police. Frequenting Airbnb properties increases my risk of encountering the police given the recent incidence of #BBQBecky as well as a historical trend of white people calling the cops when encountering a black person for insert asinine reason. The so-called rationale for such heinousness vary – some analysts, commentators and researchers say white people do this because they encounter black people they have not seen before and immediately feel threatened or they refuse to tolerate black people’s presence because of, you know, O J Simpson. There have been experiences of white neighbors living next to Airbnb hosts calling the police on black clients they see entering and exiting Airbnb properties – customers who have paid to rent the properties while in no way committing any crimes.
I wish to never find myself in a situation with a police officer of any race or any gender playing mediator where my word is against that of a white person whose behavior and speech are governed by confusion, fear, economic anxiety, good intentions, bad intentions, passion for their country, being hard-working Americans, family values, being blue collar, or being law-abiding citizens, among other lies they tell in explaining their racist behavior. Being a hard worker, for example has absolutely nothing to do with calling the cops because you see a black person renting an Airbnb in your neighborhood. Sure, there was that time a white police officer sided with the black real estate agent who was profiled and harassed by a white woman living next to a property he was assessing. There were also innumerable times white cops murdered black, tax paying citizens, lied about it or were otherwise not held accountable. I do not trust police officers of any race or gender to act in a way that aligns with my best interests.
Learn How to Talk. Develop interpersonal skills and use them in a non-judgement, non-accusatory manner to engage people you do not know or gain an understanding of customs and behaviors you may readily deem wrong or as an affront to your values. This removes the need to involve a third party such as the police. Find a way to overcome which ever barrier, preconceived notion, or reflex you have learned over the years that makes you feel that involving yourself overall and the police in particular a viable option. For the literal minded, this does not mean refrain from calling the police if you are robbed, your car is vandalized, your home is defaced, your life is threatened, you witness a murder, someone manifests visible signs of dying, or if you see someone’s house on fire among other obvious reasons to alert the authorities. Calling the police because you see an unfamiliar black person is not only stupid yet also a terrible use of valuable public resources some people love to rant and rave about our avoidably wasting.
Mind Your Own Business. When you see people unfamiliar to you, leaving them be and minding your own business is a viable option too. A lack of familiarity is not synonymous to situations being sinister or strangers wanting to kill you or otherwise engage in criminality. Sure, that previous sentence was sort of hyperbolic, so is picking up the phone and calling the cops because you see a black person. Yet with the latter, people sometimes end up dead as a result. No intervention of any kind is usually warranted. The poorly executed public service announcement “when you see something, say something,” should come with sized 30-font footnotes exclaiming this entire paragraph.
Why can I not just enjoy Airbnb without bringing race into such an awesome experience?
- Because there are racist Airbnb hosts who have made this “conversation” necessary.
- Because everyone knows not all white people who control most of the economic and social levers of American society are racist, just enough of them are.
- Because it is not always black people making “poor choices” that lead to our plight.
- Because we live in these United States of America where racism is as old as the country itself.
- Because the Confederate War was about states’ rights to uphold the institution of slavery.
- Because I experience racism as do people I hold dear.
- Because my white spouse experiences me experiencing racism and he hates it as do many other white people I know and hold dear.
- Because we are striving to create a more perfect Union.
- Because indifference to racism perpetuates it.
- Because voicing injustices sheds light on them – the only solution to driving out darkness.
- Because I have a desire to do so.
- Because of the same reason some people wish I did not – I have the free will to do so.
- Because former President, Barack Obama’s two terms in office was not indicative of the demise of racism – and it’s irrelevant some of my compatriots voted for him, twice.
In closing, Airbnb experience was far better than I anticipated. I still prefer hotel chains for the reasons I listed here. When renting an Airbnb property with my spouse Larry, many of these concerns vanish because his white skin disarms my black skin while reassuring others’ white skin. It may feel odd reading this, yet it happens. I have accepted the notion that navigating my country (and others) requires I do certain things some of my compatriots may never expend energy doing. This includes my deciding to spend our money on Airbnb properties knowing that doing so may involve my being mistreated because of my skin color. I also know that it means nothing of the like could happen and we could have an awesome time – as I have.