■ Kyle Selby / Reporter
In February, an Airbnb host – and former Mt. San Jacinto College professor – cancelled on an Asian-American guest just minutes before she made it to her Running Springs destination, followed by a slew of anti-Asian remarks.
Now, according to officials with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), Tami Barker Sutter has agreed to pay a $5,000 fine in damages for racial discrimination and must attend a college course in Asian-American studies.
“One word says it all. Asian,” wrote Barker in a message exchange with Dyne Suh six months ago. Suh, a 25-year-old law student in Riverside, her fiancé, two friends, and two small dogs had just made it up the mountain for a highly anticipated ski-trip vacation to Big Bear over President’s Day weekend when she received the confusing message. A winter storm warning was also in effect that weekend, creating hazardous road conditions, and resulting in 6-12 inches of snow that night in higher elevations up the mountain.
“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,” continued Barker as seen in a screenshot of the exchange. “I will contact Airbnb immediately…We are done here…You are a con artist.”
Suh and company had booked her stay at Barker’s mountain cabin through Airbnb a month prior, and Barker had initially allowed Suh’s requests to bring friends and two small Yorkshire terriers along. On the night of Feb. 17, Suh and her fiancé drove 1 hour and 45 minutes while the other couple joining them drove 3 hours through heavy rain and snow. When the four were just 3 minutes away from the cabin, the host abruptly cancelled their reservation.
Upset and stuck in the snow, Suh threatened to report Barker 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,” Barker 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, which was quickly welcomed with overwhelming support. A reporter from KTLA 5 parked near Suh covering the snowstorm, interviewed Suh after hearing her story. The story eventually went national two months later.
“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.”
Suh posted to her Facebook later that night 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.
MSJC confirms Barker ‘no longer employed’
Barker, a college professor, most recently was employed by Mt. San Jacinto College, as revealed by an archived PDF of Barker’s LinkedIn profile. The profile listed that she had been an English as a Second Language (ELS) instructor, and Writing Center tutor at MSJC since August 2015. Barker has since deleted most of her online presence since the allegations were publicized.
The college came under fire when Facebook users took to MSJC’s Facebook page and demanded that Barker be fired after the story made national news in April.
Controversially, just hours after dozens of criticizing comments were left, the posts were deleted from the college’s Facebook page and the post/review option for the page was disabled.
Saturday, after news of Barker’s settlement was released, MSJC posted the following message:
“Mt. San Jacinto College is aware of a recent follow-up news story about an incident involving a former Airbnb host. We can confirm that this individual is no longer with our District, however state employment laws prohibit us from discussing personnel matters
Mt. San Jacinto College does not tolerate discrimination of any kind at its campuses or during the course of college business and has a strict non-discrimination policy.
The college also addressed the deleted comments and reviews left by concerned Facebook users.
“Mt. San Jacinto College also has a social media policy that prohibits the use of obscenities. Due to the extremely vulgar language that has been used by some who have commented on our social media pages, we have exercised our right to report and remove posts and filter our social media pages. Because we support First Amendment rights, those who wish to express their views can do so under this post. However, we will remove comments that violate our social media policy.”
Personal apology and community service required
As part of an agreement with state officials, Barker agreed to personally apologize to Suh and perform community service at a civil rights organization. Her attorney, Edward Lee, told ABC 7 News that his client is “regretful for her impetuous actions and comments” and is pleased that the matter has been resolved.
An Airbnb spokesperson later informed The Washington Post that Barker had been permanently removed from the Airbnb platform. The company also 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.”
“A lot of times when we see bias incidents it involves a lack of understanding of the experiences and histories of a particular group of people,” spoke Kevin Kish, director of DFEH. After their own investigation, DFEH decided that the host would attend an Asian-American studies course during mediation sessions. “This was a creative way to address that core underlying cause of the bias.”
After a 10-month investigation based on allegations that a growing number of hosts discriminated against their guests through Airbnb, the company allowed the DFEH to regulate it for racial bias.
The agreement negotiated that Airbnb would allow the government to test for racial discrimination by hosts in California who have been subject to similar complaints of racial discrimination, with three or more listings.
Investigators will create fake accounts through the hostel service, and make reservations with hosts to see if they are discriminating.
“We are interested in facilitating the types of outcomes that allow people to not only be compensated for harm but transform their relationships with each other and their communities,” added Kish.