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Airbnb CEO plans to “take swift action” to address racism and transphobia complaints

Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky.
Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky.
Kimberly White via Getty Images

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said his company plans to "take swift action" after multiple accusations of racial discrimination and transphobia by customers.

"In the next months, we will be revisiting the design of our site from end to end to see how we can create a more inclusive platform," Chesky announced at the annual Open Air conference Wednesday. "We're open to ideas. It's a really, really hard problem, and we need help solving it."

Instead of the standard method of booking hotel rooms through a travel website, Airbnb hosts must approve guests before their stay is confirmed. This step in the process, however, is open to being influenced by hosts' potential biases.

Racial discrimination claims surfaced on social media last July when Quirtina Crittenden, a black woman, chronicled her experience with discrimination using the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack. Rental properties consistently denied her request on the grounds that they were booked, though those listings remained available on their corresponding calendar.

Last month, the hashtag went viral on social media when users like Gregory Selden shared similar experiences. Selden filed a class-action lawsuit against the $25 billion company for failing to ensure "full and equal enjoyment" of company services.

Additionally, on June 5, writer and producer Shadi Petosky publicly shared a rejection she'd received from an Airbnb host in the past after disclosing that she is a transgender woman. The host was not removed until nearly a year later.

Airbnb's sharing economy model has not been able to avoid discrimination. A 2016 Harvard Business School working paper found Airbnb hosts were 16 percent more likely to deny guests with stereotypically African-American-sounding names than those with stereotypically white-sounding names, even when the profiles were identical.

But Airbnb's failure to act in a timely fashion may literally cost it. The aforementioned paper also noted that hosts who reject African-American guests find replacements for the property only 35 percent of the time.

Two new startups have also surfaced in reaction to the controversy: Noirebnb and Noirbnb. The similarities between their names may cause confusion, but both companies have the same fundamental mission.

"We decided racism and discrimination were still happening so it was pretty much up to us to solve the issue," Noirbnb co-founder Stefan Grant told USA Today.

Airbnb has yet to unveil specifics about how it plans to move forward to redress discrimination complaints. Laura Murphy, the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington, DC, legislative office, was reportedly tapped by the company to help with its review. Airbnb is also working to recruit underrepresented minorities in computer and data science.

"We want to move this forward," Chesky said. But when guests like Grant are quickly creating their own independent solutions to Airbnb's discrimination problem, Airbnb can't afford to take its time to fix the same issue.