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The discomfort zone

To newcomers like Tiffany Dufu, Boston's racial problem is hiding in plain sight

Tiffany Dufu does some window shopping before meeting a friend for dinner in Harvard Square. Dufu said that because she is uneasy about Boston's racial climate, she is unsure that she and her husband will stay here to raise a family.
Tiffany Dufu does some window shopping before meeting a friend for dinner in Harvard Square. Dufu said that because she is uneasy about Boston's racial climate, she is unsure that she and her husband will stay here to raise a family. (Globe staff photo/Jonathan Wiggs)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / June 22, 2005

First in a series of occasional articles about blacks and Latinos living in metro Boston.

Before Tiffany Dufu moved from Seattle to Boston last August, some of her friends and co-workers were eager to assure her how much she would love her new city. Only in retrospect did she note that all of those singing Boston's praises were white.

There are aspects of Boston that Dufu has indeed come to love. The city's physical beauty lifts her spirits as she runs along the Charles River. She is intrigued by the way Boston's idiosyncratic neighborhoods make her feel that she is ''being absorbed by something larger than myself." On a personal level, she has liked many of the Bostonians she has met; on a professional level, she feels she has grown.

But as an African-American woman, Dufu is also troubled by some of what she has seen and heard in the Boston area. So troubled, in fact, that she is far from sure she will stay here when she and her husband, Kojo, start a family. ''I'll be really candid and say that as long as it was just Kojo and I, I'd be fine with it," she says. ''But I have concerns about raising my black children in Boston. This would be a tough place for me to have a family."

In many respects, Tiffany Dufu is exactly the sort of young professional Boston should want to attract. She is young (31), smart, friendly, and so intent on broadening her horizons that she spends several nights a week at lectures and cultural events. In her role as a fund-raiser for Simmons College, Dufu is plugged in to the vital academic heart of the city. With her zest for networking and her civic-mindedness (she periodically volunteers at a homeless shelter), Dufu could be a role model for the upwardly mobile women at Simmons who may eventually make their own contributions to Boston's future.

So why is she so uncertain that her own future lies in Boston? The answers are complex. Dufu readily admits that she has not personally experienced overt racial discrimination in Boston. But she nonetheless feels a persistent unease about the city's racial climate. It stems from her day-to-day observations and interactions, a mosaic of moments and events -- some small, some not so small -- that, to her, add up to a worrisome portrait.

''Boston is just so . . ." Dufu pauses. ''Under the surface," she finishes. Another pause. ''And yet it's so blatant, so obvious."

Dufu has a nuanced take on Boston race relations that is delivered not with anger, but with honest perplexity. Her views echo the findings of a report released in April by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, which found there are ''high levels of perceived discrimination among minority groups" in the Boston area and that racial intolerance and inequality have ''taken new forms." That report cited a poll conducted last October in which 80 percent of African-American respondents and half of Hispanics called racial discrimination in the Boston area a ''somewhat or very serious problem." The report also noted that ''Perceptions of racial discrimination can affect the decisions of talented minorities within the region to stay or to leave."

Those words could describe Dufu (who did not participate in the poll). As a newcomer, she can't help comparing Boston with Seattle, where she lived for a decade. Why, she wonders, are interracial couples so much more scarce in Boston, where nearly one-quarter of the population is black, whereas in Seattle, such couples were ''a dime a dozen," even though the black population is only 8 percent? ''It's quite a mixed city, and I did not think of it that way till I came to Boston," she says.

So many questions swirl around her new life in this new city. Why is she so often the only black woman in the room when she attends a networking event? Why do so few Bostonians seem to have friends across racial lines, in sharp contrast to Seattle? Why did so many people warn her against living in certain Boston neighborhoods (accentuating their ''danger") that all turned out to comprise mostly black residents? ''The places where they didn't want me to live were probably the places where people like me lived," she says. ''I'm not afraid of those people. Those are my cousins. Those are my aunties." (She and her husband rented an apartment in Cambridge to be close to MIT's Sloan School of Management, where he is working toward an MBA.) Or, conversely, why have some Bostonians warned her against going to certain white neighborhoods? And why are Boston neighborhoods always identified in terms of race, anyway? ''In Seattle, there are distinct communities, but it's not necessarily based on race," says Dufu.

Dufu found it jarring that a white woman whom she had just met felt comfortable confiding, ''Oh, I just love bald black men," without seeing the objectification inherent in that remark. She was flat-out stunned when a list of ''The 100 People Who Run This Town" in last month's issue of Boston magazine contained only one black person. (It was the Rev. Eugene Rivers, listed at No. 97.) ''I'm looking at the list and I'm going, come on, you've got to be kidding me," says Dufu. ''Either this can't be true, or this is true and this place is in big trouble. How can the civic leadership tolerate that?"

Perhaps most troubling of all to Dufu was the Pop Warner controversy this month that exposed yet another racial gulf in the Boston area. Citing the hard-hitting approach to football practiced by urban players, ''intimidating" rap music featured at some Boston fields, and what they say are safety issues at some city fields, five suburban Pop Warner teams opted to leave a youth football conference that includes players from Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan. To Dufu, it confirmed her growing sense that this region, or at least the adults in this region, tend to build walls between black and white.

''That is heavy. That is so loaded," she says, her voice rising. ''I wanted to say to them: 'Did it occur to you that that is someone else's child, and if that place is not safe for your child, it may not be safe for their child, and they have to live there? Can't you see that your child could learn something from that child?' How could they just say no?"

The Pop Warner episode reverberated deep within Dufu because it got her thinking about what her children's lives would be like in the Boston area. Would she want to raise them in a mostly black neighborhood, gaining the benefits of a strong racial identity but possibly being shortchanged in terms of resources? Or would she want to raise them in the suburbs, thereby gaining access to more resources but possibly encountering people who, in her words, ''may reflect their stereotypes onto my children"? Seeing Boston-area race relations through the eyes of her prospective children added a disconcerting new layer to her experience in this city.

This question is crucial, because family is of utmost importance to her. She grew up in Tacoma, Wash., the older of two children, both girls. Her father became a minister and an elementary school counselor after a stint in the Army; her mother was a homemaker for many years before becoming a social worker. The family had little money, but her parents instilled in both girls a deep sense of racial pride and reach-for-the-skies ambition. ''If you believe it, you can achieve it," her father used to say to her.

Dufu achieved quite a bit. A stellar student in high school, she was accepted at Spelman College in Atlanta, a historically black women's college. After one enjoyable year there, though, she switched to the University of Washington to ease the financial strain on her parents (who had divorced when she was 16). She majored in English and reveled in reading Shakespeare, Faulkner, Baldwin, Bellow, and Sonia Sanchez. She joined a black sorority and participated in efforts to pressure the college administration to hire more black faculty. One day, a classmate introduced her to Kojo Dufu, an engineering major from Ghana who was working as a residential assistant in her dorm. The two would marry two years after she graduated.

Intent on becoming a high school teacher, Dufu received a master's degree in English from the University of Washington. But she started to chafe at graduate school life; she wanted to get out in the world and work for causes that were important to her. So she began working for a nonprofit foundation, honing her marketing and public-relations skills. She was offered a job as a fund-raiser for a girls' middle school that sought to do battle against all the ''isms" (racism, sexism, ageism) except idealism. Though she had never done any fund-raising, Dufu said yes. It was just the kind of mission she was looking for. ''I know that my life's work is advancing women and girls in the world," she says. She went on to spearhead a drive that raised nearly $2 million for the school in 18 months. The same ambition prompted her last year to cross the country to come to Simmons, a women's college.

During her year in Atlanta and her decade in Seattle, she grew used to seeing a lot of casual interactions among people from all ethnic groups and income levels. It disappoints her that she does not see many of those kinds of interactions in Boston. Fundamentally, she does not believe that Boston is honest about race, instead preferring to submerge tensions beneath a veneer of niceties and pieties.

''When you talk about diversity, they tend to tense up here," says Dufu. In Seattle, she says, people of other ethnic groups would challenge her in an argument, whereas ''Here, people are too afraid of being perceived as racist, so they close up." Dufu also discerns a more subtle level in which race seemingly comes into play in Boston: namely in the city's obsession with class. She is startled by how often people ask her not just what she does for a living, but what her parents do for a living. ''I had never experienced class the way I experienced it in Boston," she says.

One episode was simultaneously baffling, wounding, amusing, and revealing. At a professional networking event, a woman regaled Dufu with a tale of a childhood friend who had five children and lived near her mother. The woman's tone of voice implied there was something wrong with both those facts. Then the woman bitingly observed that despite her early promise, the friend ''ended up going to a state school." As a graduate of the University of Washington, Dufu was jolted by that strange locution -- ''ended up." ''That was the first time it dawned on me that I am not part of some upper echelon, because I didn't go to Harvard or Yale or MIT," says Dufu. Back home, she had felt like a success, having received both a bachelor's and a master's degree in English. ''Then I come here, and I find there's a crop that's creamier," she says with a bemused laugh.

Her education in the byzantine ways of Boston continues, both good and bad. She worries that the region's stratospheric real estate costs amount to a kind of invisible racial barrier. She wonders why the media don't find more room amid copious crime coverage for stories on the ''heroes" of the black community. She is surprised that some Bostonians still seem bitter about the court-ordered busing to achieve desegregation in the 1970s. But she greatly enjoyed Black History Month in February because she got to absorb firsthand how much significant black history was made in Boston. ''Here, I don't have to just read about Crispus Attucks," she says, referring to the black man who was the first victim of the Boston Massacre. ''I can go to the place where Crispus Attucks fell."

On a daily basis, Tiffany Dufu wrestles with the paradoxes of this city that she wants to understand, wants to learn to love, to call home. She has many good days on that score. But then she will walk down the street and notice how segregated the city seems on so many levels. And she will wonder again if her future lies in Boston.

''It's just so deeply rooted that it's almost paralyzing," she says. ''At the same time that Boston represents liberty, represents democracy, it also represents the sore. I think it's a tough thing to deal with. And I don't know if people are prepared to do the work to make it better."

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

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