■ By Kyle Selby / Reporter
“One word says it all. Asian,” wrote one Airbnb host as she unexpectedly canceled the reservations on an Asian-American guest who was only minutes away from the destination.
Dyne Suh, a 25-year-old law student in Riverside, her fiancé, two friends, and two small dogs (teacup Yorkies) were headed to a highly anticipated ski-trip vacation to Big Bear over President’s Day weekend when she received the cancellation notice. A winter storm warning was in effect that weekend, creating hazardous road conditions, and resulting in six to 12 inches of snow that night in higher elevations up the mountain.
A month prior, they had booked a mountain cabin through Airbnb, an online marketplace and hospitality service, which enables people to lease or rent short-term lodging including vacation rentals, apartment rentals, home stays, hostel beds, or hotel rooms. The cabin was listed as a “Tree House Loft and Private Bathroom” in Running Springs, about a 17-mile drive from Big Bear Lake.
The Airbnb host later approved two other guests and two teacup Yorkies after Suh’s initial booking, telling Suh “it should be fine.” On the night of Feb. 17, Suh and her fiancé drove an hour and 45 minutes while the other couple joining them drove three hours through heavy rain and snow. When the four were just three minutes away from the cabin, the host abruptly cancelled their reservation.
“If you think 4 people and 2 dogs [are] getting a room [for] $50 a night on big bear mountain during the busiest weekend of the year ….. You are insanely high,” the host wrote as seen in a screenshot of the exchange. “I will contact Airbnb immediately…We are done here…You are a con artist.”
Upset and stuck in the snow, Suh threatened to report the host to Airbnb with screenshots of the conversation.
“Go ahead. I wouldn’t rent to you if you were the last person on Earth…One word says it all. Asian,” the host responded. “It’s why we have Trump…I will not allow this country to be told what to do by foreigners.”
Suh immediately posted screenshots of the conversation on her Facebook page, and was quickly welcomed with overwhelming support. She later commented to inform her friends that she and the other guests eventually found shelter in a nearby cabin, after Airbnb offered to reimburse her night’s stay at an alternative hotel.
“We have worked to provide the guest with our full support and in line with our nondiscrimination policy, this host has been permanently removed from the Airbnb platform,” Airbnb spokesman Nick Papas told The Washington Post, after an investigation of the host’s activity.
While the incident happened in February, the story wasn’t publicized until last Wednesday by KTLA 5, who happened to be parked near them on the mountain covering the storm, and one of their reporters immediately interviewed Suh with his smartphone.
“I’m an American citizen. This is my home,” said Suh. “It stings. It stings that after living in the U.S. for 23 years, this is what happens.”
The Airbnb host was identified by contributed information collected by users on social media as Tami Barker Sutter. Barker, a college professor, has ties to Chaffey College, University of California Riverside, Palomar Community College, and most recently Mt. San Jacinto College. An archived PDF of Barker’s LinkedIn profile lists that she has been a Writing Center tutor, and English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor at MSJC since August 2015. Barker has deleted most of her online presence since the allegations were publicized.
Almost immediately, students, and both concerned Americans and minorities swarmed the Mt. San Jacinto College Facebook page, criticizing the college’s decision to keep Barker on staff [the college will not say whether she remains on staff], so much so that the school’s rating dropped to a 1.4 out of 5 stars rating. Hours later, the posts were deleted, and the post/review option for the page was disabled.
On Tuesday April 11, MSJC published the following statement to its Facebook page: “Mt. San Jacinto College is aware of the allegations of discrimination that have surfaced against the owner of a property that was offered as a vacation rental. The allegations do not involve the college district and did not occur on our campuses nor during college district business. However, as a college district, we do not condone the type of behavior described in the allegations. Mt. San Jacinto College does not tolerate discrimination of any kind at its campuses or during the course of college business.”
People responded to the statement with concern as to why the college deleted the reviews in the first place. “I hope you don’t teach Public Relations at your institution,” commented Sheryl Fitch, an Asian-American citizen who caught wind of the incident from Washington, D.C. “PR 101 – don’t delete negative comments. Acknowledge them.”
“I think people are concerned because her profession has a huge impact on whether ESL students will be successful,” continued Fitch. “If she’s naturally biased towards minorities, what’s going to ensure that she teaches them to the best of her ability? Suppose she had an Asian student in her class…why would she be inclined to teach them anything?”
The college’s spokesperson, Karin Marriott, said “I cannot comment on personnel matters,” when asked about whether Barker remains employed at MSJC. “As for your questions about Facebook, the college’s social media procedures prohibit discussions that are unrelated to college business, or contain derogatory language, or forms of harassment.”
According to Barker’s husband Jonathan Sutter’s Airbnb account (they now lease the home under his name), they purchased the home in 2012. Sutter is a college professor and a scientific programmer.
“Please respect Tami’s privacy,” Suh later wrote after the story went viral. “We all make mistakes and we are all learning. Unfortunately, we are all racist to varying degrees and we all have de-biasing to do. No witch hunts please. This is not a Tami problem, this is not a Big Bear/Running Springs problem – it’s an all of us and everywhere problem.”
According to Suh, Airbnb has since offered her free stays at “expensive” Big Bear resorts (averaging $375 per night), but she declined, instead requesting that they innovate “creative solutions” to help prevent future discriminatory transactions through their online marketplace.
The company responded by issuing the following commitment: We believe that no matter who you are, where you are from, or where you travel, you should be able to belong in the Airbnb community. By joining this community, you commit to treat all fellow members of this community, regardless of race, religion, national origin, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age, with respect, and without judgment or bias.