Selling black places on Airbnb

Colonial discourse and the marketing of black communities in New York City

Airbnb has recently become a growing topic of both concern and interest for urban researchers, policymakers, and activists. Previous research has emphasized Airbnb’s economic impact and its role as a driver of residential gentrification, but Airbnb also fosters place entrepreneurs, geared to extract value from a global symbolic economy by marketing the urban frontier to a transna- tional middle class. This emphasizes the cultural impact of Airbnb on cities, and its power of symbolizing and communicating who belongs in specific places, responding to questions of class, gender, and ethnicity—and thereby potentially driving cultural displacement. Coming from this perspective, this paper uses computational critical discourse analysis to study how white and black hosts market black-majority neighborhoods in New York City on Airbnb, and how guests describe their consumption experience.

The analysis shows how white entrepreneurs attempt to attract guests through a form of colonial discourse: exoticizing difference, emphasizing foreignness, and treating communities as consumable experiences for an outside group. White visitors, in turn, consume these cultural symbols to decorate their own identities of touristic consumption, describing themselves in colonial tropes of brave white adventurers exploring uncharted territories: glorious conquests no longer over gold and ivory, but over sandwiches at a local bodega. This situates Airbnb’s marketing at the urban frontier in a longer history of colonialism and racialized expropriation.

Source: Törnberg, P., & Chiappini, L. 2020. Selling black places on Airbnb: Colonial discourse and the marking of black communities in New York City. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space.

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