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Airbnb to limit use of travelers' names as an anti-racism experiment in Oregon

For at least two years, rental hosts in the state will see only guests' initials until after the bookings have been confirmed.
Credit: Kyle Iboshi

PORTLAND, Oregon — Airbnb hosts in Oregon will soon be blocked from initially seeing the full names of guests, in an experiment aimed at curbing discrimination against Black travelers, the booking service announced.

For two years, starting on Jan. 31, vacation landlords in Oregon offering houses and apartments for rent via the popular travel website will be able to see only the first initials of prospective guests.

The guests' full names will appear only after the booking is confirmed, Airbnb said.

An Airbnb representative couched the policy change as an experiment in one state.

“Given that the impact of this change is unknown, the implementation will be limited” to Oregon, Airbnb spokeswoman Liz DeBold Fusco said in a statement to NBC News on Tuesday.

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The experiment is linked to the 2019 settlement of a lawsuit by three Black plaintiffs — Pat Harrington, Carlotta Franklin and Ebony Price — who said the site allowed rental owners to discriminate against customers based on race.

"This update is consistent with the voluntary settlement agreement we reached in 2019 with individuals in Oregon who raised concerns regarding the way guests’ names are displayed when they seek to book a listing," according to the Airbnb statement.

"As part of our ongoing work, we will take any learnings from this process and use them to inform future efforts to fight bias."

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Sociology and psychology researchers have consistently found patterns of discrimination against people with “black-sounding” names, as opposed to those with “white-sounding” ones.

And discrimination suffered by Black travelers over the years has launched the popular hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack.

There’s nothing wrong with natural curiosity about a customer, based solely on his or her name, as long as it doesn’t lead to a discriminatory act, said University of Kentucky librarian Reinette Jones.

“Once we hear a name or read a name, we do all kinds of mental gymnastics with that name,” said Jones, who has extensively researched the origins of African American names.

Jones said it remains to be seen how the Airbnb experiment in Oregon pans out.

“You hear a name and we try to put the person together in our mind regardless of what the name is," she said. "And sometimes it’s done in a very negative way, sometimes it impacts the person financially, emotionally, and spiritually. And other times, it’s innocent. So I can’t say one size fits all.”

Go here to read this story on NBC News. 

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