Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

What started out as a normal night for a group of black people ended up being … a typical night for a group of black people.

The Root spoke with Meshawn Cisero, one of the four guests who had booked an Airbnb in New York City. The friends, including Meshawn and his twin brother Meshach, had flown in from different parts of the country to enjoy a weekend together. They decided to book a reservation that was listed as two private bedrooms and one bathroom on the top floor of an owner-on-site residence. There was a maximum of six people allowed to stay.

“When we arrived through the front door things felt off. There was someone’s father with a dog [and they weren’t] described in the posting,” said Cisero who was the first to arrive at the rental property around 11 p.m. The posting noted the owner and spouse would be on site but didn’t mention any additional residents. “We walked upstairs to the third floor and were greeted by the host’s boyfriend or husband; we didn’t meet the host when we initially arrived.”

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The host’s spouse greeted the gentlemen and according to Cisero, “he was very polite to us the entire time.” They were shown to their two rooms on the third floor, which were connected by a bathroom. Cisero said they were told that noise shouldn’t be a problem because they were on the third floor, which was also stated on the Airbnb listing page for the private bedrooms.

Cisero and his friends started playing music while getting dressed for their evening out but soon were told by the host’s spouse to turn the music down or off because they were trying to sleep.

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“We complied because we didn’t want to break the rules,” Cisero said, “but when we were greeted he said music shouldn’t be a problem. Music was playing but we weren’t being loud.”

The men shut off the music but continued to socialize and talk. A friend came to meet them at the residence, bringing the total to five people, still within the range of the accepted number of guests per the rental listing.

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“The boyfriend came up a second time to tell us to be quiet again. He never got rude, loud, or aggressive; he was trying to remedy the situation,” said Cisero. “Honestly, we were being very compliant.”

Around 1:15 am, as the men were on their way out for the evening, the owner host, only identified as Kate on the Airbnb listing, finally confronted the men on her own.

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“You need to get the fuck out, you guys are too loud,” Kate allegedly snapped at the men.

“That’s when things escalated,” Cisero recalls. “No ‘hi’, no greeting. We were all confused. As soon as she came in she told us to ‘Get the fuck out.’ She was very rude from the jump. She called us criminals.”

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Eventually, it was the men themselves who called the police because of Kate’s erratic behavior, standing in the doorway and yelling obscenities.

“She got really aggressive, saying she didn’t feel safe around us. She said we were going to damage her property and steal from her. All of us are gainfully employed professionals with no criminal records.” Meshawn is a software consultant and business analyst based in Houston, while his twin brother is a chef.

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The men pleaded with Kate to let them stay the night as they weren’t being disruptive, and had nowhere else to stay. Still, she wasn’t having it. Ignoring the requests of Cisero and his friends, Kate told them they’d overstayed their welcome and had too many people in the rooms. When the group argued that the listing was for six people, Kate harshly replied, “Which monkey is going to stay on the couch?”

Cisero and his guests were shocked by the racist slur.

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The fact that this slur came from a fellow person of color, an Asian woman, rather than a white person made the insult all that more hurtful.

“I felt like she should’ve related to us to a degree,” Cisero said, “but that feeling was quickly removed.”

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When police arrived they agreed and empathized with the guests’ version of events, but ultimately there was nothing they could do to keep the men in the rental for the night as it was Kate’s property and therefore her call as to whether or not they were welcome to stay. The guests alerted Airbnb who put them in a hotel for the night, but even that proved to be a tedious and frustrating process.

“We kind of felt helpless in a lot of ways because we were at the mercy of phone calls,” Cisero recalls, “We waited around for what felt like forever. We missed plans with friends ... we missed over half our stay in New York because of this ordeal.”

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Airbnb has had several racist complaints since the platform launched in 2008, including a high-profile incident last year involving Donisha Prendergast, the granddaughter of Bob Marley, and her two friends. While packing to leave their Airbnb in California a neighbor waved at Prendergast and her friends. When they didn’t smile or wave back (because they aren’t required to), the police were called on their group under suspicion of being thieves.

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A 2016 report by NPR showed that many black Airbnb guests opt to not use their real photos in profile pictures, or choose to alter their black-sounding names otherwise they’ve found it harder to book a place to stay.

“The hosts would always come up with excuses like, ‘Oh, someone actually just booked it’ or ‘Oh, some of my regulars are coming in town, and they’re going to stay there,’” Quirtina Crittenden told NPR. “But I got suspicious when I would check back like days later and see that those dates were still available.”

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The prevalence of anti-black sentiments within Airbnb gave rise to #AirBnbWhileBlack, a hashtag that has accompanied countless claims across the globe for tales of discrimination against black patrons. Meshawn’s brother Meshach posted his story to social media and quickly received thousands of responses.

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Airbnb responded in Cisero’s comments by writing:

“We’re so sorry to hear this, Airbnb does not condone discrimination in any way. You can view our Anti-Discriminatory Policy here. We’d like to follow up on this, could you please send us a DM providing additional information? Thank you.”

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In 2017, the NAACP partnered with the company to recruit black hosts, increase workplace diversity and create economic opportunities for communities of color. Among other steps taken, Airbnb altered their policies to prohibit hosts from seeing the photos of potential guests until after they have accepted a booking. Most recently, the platform named Melissa C. Thomas-Hunt as the company’s new Head of Global Diversity and Belonging in an attempt to remedy the remaining issues.

Still, this hasn’t been enough for many people. In the wake of so many #AirBnbWhileBlack stories with no end in sight, alternative websites like Innclusive and Travel Noire have become increasingly popular among black people who simply wish to travel in peace.

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For now, Meshawn Cisero is just ready to get back to life and put this ordeal behind him. When asked what he would say to Kate now if he had the chance, his answer was simple:

“Honestly, I would’ve said less,” Cisero replied, “because you can’t change that type of ignorance.”

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The Root has reached out to Airbnb for comment and will update with their response.

Update: 6/2/19, 7:20 a.m. ET: Airbnb public affairs rep, Ben Breit, gave the below-written statement to The Root, confirming that the host has been removed from the rental platform, and detailing the current steps being taken by the company to stop incidents like the one experienced by Cisero and his friends:

The language used in this video is unacceptable and has no place in the Airbnb community. We have a strict nondiscrimination policy, which we are enforcing to remove the host from our platform. We are supporting Mr. Cisero and his friends in getting them a new place to stay through our Open Doors policy. We’re thankful to them for bringing this to our attention so we could take action.

Background on Airbnb’s Approach to Nondiscrimination:

  • Airbnb’s Open Doors Policy: If a Guest anywhere in the world feels like they have been discriminated against in violation of our policy – in trying to book a listing, having a booking canceled, or in any other interaction with a host – we will find that Guest a similar place to stay if one is available on Airbnb, or if not, we will find them an alternative accommodation elsewhere.
  • Community Commitment that all Airbnb hosts and guests must agree to before being allowed to use the platform: I agree to treat everyone in the Airbnb community—regardless of their race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or age—with respect, and without judgment or bias.
  • Airbnb’s full non-discrimination policy
  • Report and recommendations from investigation led by former ACLU executive Laura Murphy
  • Recent change on guest photos aimed at further combating bias