Airbnb Horror Story: ‘I think I just experienced racism’

#EverydayRacism is a project formed to raise awareness on discrimination, racism, and bigotry. It is a series of stories told by ordinary people who stood up against bullying, unjust treatment, verbal, physical or emotional harassment based on gender, religion, race, age, or social class. We in Jutland Station hope to break the spiral of silence through reporting on such incidents.

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Bullying and racism exist in many ways. They can happen anywhere, anytime, even at a place where you least expect it. The first installment of #EverydayRacism tells the story of a young Filipina student who felt unwelcome in a Danish woman’s house.

*This is an actual letter sent to Airbnb with minor edits. Full name of the host withheld as case is currently being processed by Airbnb’s customer services.

“Dear Airbnb:

A few weeks ago, I just experienced the worst Airbnb stay in my life. In just a span of three days and two nights, I have been humiliated, discriminated and talked down upon as a Filipino. I think I might have experienced racism too. Here’s my story.

On Oct. 7, my friend reserved a room in downtown Copenhagen owned by Amy*. Diana and I decided to spend our weekend in Copenhagen to enjoy the “happiest country in the world.” She is a Canadian-Filipino traveling around Europe. I, on the other hand, am a student studying Journalism at Aarhus University in Denmark.

Stepping into Amy’s house felt like entering a great grandaunt’s place: everything is tidy and proper. There were fresh flowers in the vases, the linens were perfectly folded, and there were two pieces of chocolate to welcome us from our long travel. I came in late in the evening so Diana showed me around the house and introduced me to Amy. She was nice but from the beginning, she made a clear boundary between us and her. Diana briefed me with Amy’s rules: no entry in the kitchen at 10 p.m., use of designated and specific lamps to open at the hallway, color-coded towels and cleaning materials to use at the toilet. She also warned us about a very expensive vase sitting in our room. Apparently, we also needed to clean and dry the bathroom every after shower. “She doesn’t like water droplets in the shower handle,” my friend said. I found it too strict and specific but I understood—we were sharing a house with her anyway.

That night, I made a cup of coffee and heated up a leftover burger in her kitchen. She gave me a tray because she didn’t want any crumbs falling off the floor. We were chatting at the common living area when she asked us to leave after 30 minutes because she and her friend wanted to play music.

That night we understood that she was a serious, strict person, and that we have to be careful not to cross her. We tiptoed at night, talked in hushed voices, and made sure we didn’t create too much noise.

The next day, I was hoping to have a chitchat with the lady—after all, we have something common to talk about as I am living in Aarhus for a year. Here’s a non-verbatim dialog:

Amy: How are you able to fund yourself here as a student? It must be expensive to study abroad. When I was a student, I had to work many jobs.

Me: I got a scholarship from the EU.

Amy: Oh…you got lucky.

Me: I wouldn’t say it’s just luck ‘cause only a few got the scholarship.

Amy: Then maybe you’re good or you’re lucky.

Me: Maybe I’m both.

I observed that she had a condescending voice all throughout the conversation as if she could not believe my story. She had a pre-conceived notion that I’m here in Denmark as a stroke of luck.

That same morning she scolded me for not drying the toilet’s floor. She called me out from the bathroom, saying she couldn’t believe that I would leave the toilet like that. In my defense, I tried to dry the floor with the rug available in the toilet but the rug was already wet when I used it and I could only do so much. I apologized and went to the toilet again to dry it. I asked for a new rug but she said “You are not squeezing the rug hard enough.” I knew she was upset so I tried not to talk back. I felt like a child being scoldebyd, but I went back to the toilet and literally waited until the wind dried the floor. It took roughly five minutes of standing in the toilet, making sure it’s dry before she inspected it again.

The next day during our walking tour, I came back to the house because I forgot to bring my ID. As soon as I got home, she confronted me saying “I don’t like the way you are treating my house. You are disrespecting me, and you are disrespecting my house.”

I was shocked because I didn’t know that the (slightly wet) toilet floor early that morning had upset her this much. Apparently, she had more things to say against me. Here’s a list of the absurd things she pinned on me. I tried to make it as verbatim as possible.

  1. “You are overusing my generosity. You used three towels when I think two is enough. I give and give and you are taking more and more.” (I arrived in the house with two towels hung up on the hooks of the toilet. I got one clean towel from the rack because I thought the two towels hanging on the hook were already used  somebody. It’s only logical to use one that’s folded in the rack anyway. I told her my friend and I technically just used two, but she insisted she was obliged to wash all three towels.)
  2. “You hung your wet towel on my 200-year old chair. Do you know the paint can chip off from the chair if you do that? Do you usually do this in other people’s house?” (I was so dumbfounded by this accusation I couldn’t speak. How can you answer to something like that? First, I’ve known many people who put their towels on the chairs to dry. Second, I couldn’t use the hook at the toilet because it’s already occupied. Third, why would you put a 200-year old chair in a guest room if you want to preserve it? I didn’t tell her any of this. I just said I’m sorry and it won’t happen again.)
  3. “You used the toilet three times this morning. I couldn’t even enter my toilet in my own house!” (I never knew anyone who counted the number of times people peed in the toilet. I told her “I’m sorry I had to pee.” She answered “It’s not even about that, it’s about sensibility!”)
  4. “Do you even clean in your own home? How old are you? Do have brothers and sisters?” (She tried to judge my actions by questioning me. This, I believe, is a privacy breach in the most disrespectful way.)

In all her accusations, I tried to be as calm as possible. I apologized repeatedly for the shortcomings, yet she consistently scolded me and reminded me that we were paying too little to use her “lovely house.” I wanted to defend myself and walk out of the room but the consequences were too high. First I didn’t want her to think that Filipinos solve problems like these by storming out. Second, we did not have a place to stay the night. Third, I was in her territory and I was scared for my safety.

In any case, I believe that Amy had stepped out the line. She had entered the room and arranged our things without our consent. She had verbally and emotionally harassed me as a guest. After scolding me for an entire 30 minutes, and later teaching me how to “properly” clean the toilet, I went back to my friends feeling heavy and traumatized. I missed my walking tour and spent the day feeling afraid to go home. Diana and I went back to the house as late as we could so we wouldn’t have to deal with her. We also agreed to leave early in the morning to minimize any opportunity to talk.

The weird thing about all of this is that Amy changes the manner of speaking with my Canadian friend. She speaks to me like I’m an idiot, unable to comprehend the rules of the house, and follow them accordingly. While she believed I crossed her personal boundaries by using the toilet thrice in the morning, I believe my rights have been abused. This is the first time I’ve experienced anything like this in my over six years of journalistic career and dealing with people of all ages, status, nationality, and gender.

“You know, that’s racism in a way,” my friend said. Frankly, I am not sure if that could be classified as racism. The only thing I know for certain is that I am unwelcome in her Danish house. The way she spoke to me; the way she reacted when I said I’m a Filipino student enjoying the country’s educational system for free; and the way she nitpicked on every little movement I do—if you couldn’t call it racism, then just call it for what is: disrespect.

I am writing to officially file this complaint against her. I am requesting for her accreditation be revoked as an Airbnb host. I believe no guest, or any person for that matter, should feel the same way as I did.

Respectfully,

S”

Two days after I filed the complaint, Airbnb sent out a massive email to hosts and guests all over the world to sign a “Community Commitment” beginning in Nov. 1, 2016. Under this clause, foundational principles of inclusion and respect are the highlight. This principle enables “every member of our community to feel welcome on the Airbnb platform no matter who they are, where they come from, how they worship, or whom they love.” However, Airbnb recognizes that some “jurisdictions permit, or require, distinctions among individuals based on factors such as national origin, gender, marital status or sexual orientation, and it does not require hosts to violate local laws or take actions that may subject them to legal liability.”

The “Community Commitment” also ensures that hosts or guests will be held liable for bullying, harassment, or any discriminatory behavior.

I realized that something was terribly off when the host changed her attitude when addressing me. While I tried my best to follow all the rules of the house, Amy kept on nitpicking on my every movement, comparing me to Diana who she thinks behaves “accordingly.” I also found it disrespectful when she refused to talk to me and acted as if I was invisible when we were about to leave the house.

Amy has every right to make rules in her house, be strict, or be silly at some point. However, we as guests also have the right to be treated fairly.

I am uncertain if my letter had a direct impact on this agreement but I strongly believe that reporting incidents like these had been a factor in forming an agreement towards a discrimination-free environment in Airbnb. After all, there have been many reports circulating online about widespread discrimination especially against black people.

In fact, in a study conducted by the Harvard Business School on 6,400 Airbnb listings across five cities, researchers found that applications from guests with distinctively African-American names are 16% less likely to be accepted relative to identical guests with distinctively White names. Study shows that queries from guests with white-sounding names were accepted about 50 percent of the time, while black-sounding names were only acceptecompd about 42 percent. Except for the name, guest profiles were identical in all cases. Photos were also not included in the query.

The “Community Commitment” represents a direct action of Airbnb to address racism. If the host or guest declined to sign the commitment, he or she could no longer book or reserve a trip. He or she also has the option to cancel the account where future bookings will be revoked. After several emails and phonecalls about my laint, Airbnb has also made sure that appropriate sanctions will be placed should the investigation resulted to a breach of Airbnb’s policies.

I do not take harassment, bullying, and discriminatory behavior lightly. Acknowledgment that these kinds of incidents occur is the first step to acceptance, and only through acceptance can there be a resolution. Airbnb has taken the first step to ensuring a hate-free community of guests and hosts, it is now up to us to follow these rules accordingly, embrace diversity and culture, and give the respect due to any person regardless of differences.

1 Comment

  1. Beth Merit says:

    thanks for writing this, the host sounds very traditional danish. Sorry you had such a bad host, but i think she would have treated anyone equally bad

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