Hotels Grapple With Racial Bias

Incidents of racial bias have hit major consumer brands, including Uber, Starbucks and Airbnb. Now they are cropping up at hotels, unsettling guests, spreading via social media with the hashtag #TravelingWhileBlack, and leading some in the travel industry to revisit diversity training and evaluate its effectiveness.

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Elaine Glusac
, New York Times

Incidents of racial bias have hit major consumer brands, including Uber, Starbucks and Airbnb. Now they are cropping up at hotels, unsettling guests, spreading via social media with the hashtag #TravelingWhileBlack, and leading some in the travel industry to revisit diversity training and evaluate its effectiveness.

In May, The Washington Post ran an article about a hotel clerk at the Country Inn & Suites by Radisson in Newport News, Virginia, calling a black guest a “monkey.” The employee was fired, according to a statement by the hotel general manager.

In June, Carle Wheeler, an African-American software engineer from Dallas who stayed at the Westin Pasadena in California, posted a Facebook video showing a white man asking her and her daughter if they had bathed before swimming in the pool. The video shows the hotel manager dismissing the man from the scene while encouraging the distraught family to “enjoy the pool.” Although the man who had made the offensive remark to Wheeler was not a hotel employee, Wheeler felt that the manager should have confronted him sooner, according to The Post.

And in July, an African-American man and his son returned to their room at the Art Ovation Hotel in Sarasota, Florida, part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection of hotels, to find a racist note in their room. The hotel later determined it had been left by a previous guest and did not target the family.

While the hotel companies involved expressed zero tolerance for bias from either employees or guests, the episodes did not elicit apologies from top corporate executives, as did more high-profile incidents, such as the Starbucks case in Philadelphia, in which an employee called the police on two African-American men waiting for a friend.

“The incidents did not seem to create some new wave of sensitivity training or messaging,” said Bjorn Hanson, a professor in the Jonathan M. Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism at the New York University School of Professional Studies, who explained that hotel employee training in diversity is common in an industry built upon welcoming people from around the world.

“As a person in the guest-facing role, you will experience the opportunity to welcome people of different backgrounds, religions, customs and sexual orientations,” he said. “It’s almost part of the job description to serve different backgrounds.”

But diversity training also varies, even under a single corporate umbrella. For example, Marriott mandates inclusion training for all employees at the hotels it manages within 90 days of hire. But when it comes to franchised hotels or those more loosely bound to Marriott, such as the Art Ovation Hotel, the company says it can only suggest training and make the tools available to franchisees rather than require it. The Art Ovation Hotel said all of its employees undergo antidiscrimination training.

After the episode involving a racial slur, employees of the Country Inn & Suites by Radisson in Newport News, which is also a franchise, were “retrained on code-of-conduct policies related to expectations and guiding principles for appropriate workplace behavior,” according to the company.

“Isolated incidents like this one are very unfortunate, but provide an opportunity for the company to reinforce the importance of our guest service expectations with our franchisees,” wrote Laura Langemo, a spokeswoman for Radisson Hotel Group, which includes Country Inn & Suites by Radisson, in an email.

Instilling racial and cultural sensitivity is difficult because it is generally not reviewed or evaluated on the job the way more quantifiable tasks such as computer skills (for example, checking in a guest) are, said Jamie Perry, an assistant professor of human resource management in the School of Hotel Administration at the Cornell S.C. Johnson College of Business.

“That basic level of awareness, that these people look different from me or are different culturally, is a first step in any successful diversity program, helping employees be aware of differences,” she said. “A lot of things we’re seeing in the news get at that underlying implicit bias that people have and are not aware of until it’s, ‘Oh my god, that came out of my mouth.’ Training creates a dialogue about differences.”

There may still not be enough of it, however, as travel experts expressed dismay, but not surprise, at the news.

“In the black community as a whole, we’ve known this has been going on for a long time, but camera phones and social media are finally showing it,” said Evita Turquoise Robinson, the founder and chief executive of Nomadness Travel Tribe, a travel brand that encompasses trips, a web TV series, conferences and apparel. “This is something we’ve always been hyper aware of, and travel is a very specific context. Black travelers choose places to go based on how we feel we’ll be received in that place. It becomes a safety issue.”

As a journalist and the host of two digital shows on the Travel Channel, Oneika Raymond, who is black, has visited more than 100 countries and experienced a few stinging encounters with racial bias on the road. In those situations, she advises speaking up and keeping records.

“If I encounter racial discrimination, I’m going to say something about it, but I always keep my cool,” she said. “Address them head on, calmly, with a level head if possible and escalate it to the people who matter, whether that’s a head office or manager. I always write things down.”

Wheeler, the Westin Pasadena guest, said she received an apology and an assurance that the hotel employees would undergo “unconscious bias training.” The company confirms that they did. The hotel also deducted one night from her hotel bill. But Wheeler, who called the episode “traumatizing,” said she felt the apology was slow and only elicited by the attention it received on social media.

“This experience absolutely changes the way I feel about the Westin as an entire brand,” she wrote via Facebook Messenger. “Had this incident been handled in a timely and satisfactory manner by the Westin’s corporate staff then maybe I would see it as an isolated incident with that specific hotel’s manager.”

Travel for African-Americans has been a fraught experience for generations. From 1936 to 1967, “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” founded by Victor H. Green, a New York postal worker, identified welcoming places for African-Americans that included not only hotels, restaurants and gas stations but also any service one might need on the road, according to Candacy Taylor, an author and photographer who is documenting Green Book sites.

“This doesn’t mean Westin or Starbucks or Airbnb are racist companies,” Taylor said of the recent events involving bias. “We keep pointing the finger and that person is fired, and there should be some action, but we keep missing the deeper DNA of where this comes from. We’ve got to get to a deeper level where black people feel safe as Americans like everyone else, which is what the ‘Green Book’ was trying to do.” Today, social media and the use of hashtags like #TravelingWhileBlack serve to identify racial incidents as well as to celebrate black travel. Across Instagram, the hashtag, attached to photos of travelers on beaches, hiking trails and in cities around the world, captures the joy of travel.

But there are reports of bias. In December, @myleik wrote on Twitter, “An UPDATED #TravelingWhileBlack: Me: Please drop me off at private entrance to nice hotel. Cab driver: They’re probably going to ask you for ID. Do you have a meeting there? Me: No. I’m staying there. Cab Driver: OH.”

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