Look at this photo. What do you see? Yeah, it’s a trick question.
The answer, it seems, depends on who’s being asked. But first, a little context. The Spartan Woman and I were walking down Perugia’s Corso Vannucci one fine evening, doing the passeggiata thing that’s a big deal there. The Corso is the main drag downtown, a fairly wide (for a medieval city) pedestrian street dotted with cafés, restaurants, and swank shops. It’s where the city gathers on nice nights. You walk su e giù, up and down, looking at the shop windows, gossiping, people watching. It’s one of the sweet pleasures of life in a small Italian city.
We passed Sandri, the oldest bar-café on the Corso. It’s a Vienna-style place, with frescoes on the ceiling and an Olde Europe feel to it. Waiters and baristas wear smart red vests, white shirts, and bowties. It’s got tables out on the street, where people stop all day for a coffee, a drink, and a bite.
Sandri always has an amazing window display, and it’s usually keyed to the season, or what’s going on in the city. I took this shot on March 31, a day before April 1. In Anglo-Saxon countries, it’s April Fool’s Day. Fun tricks abound—I remember one year, a computer-savvy composing room guy (that’s you, Tom B) installed an extension on the art department Macs that caused them to either shut down automatically once they’d finished their startup sequence, or the cursor got an, um, erection and had a sound effect to match.
There’s an Italian equivalent: the “pesce d’aprile.” It just means April Fool’s joke. Sandri made these pastries, or chocolates, especially for the occasion. They’re brown because Perugia as a city is renowned for its chocolates, especially the Baci made by the hometown company Perugina (now owned by Nestlé, but still based in San Sisto, a Perugia suburb). The red lips are a bit over the top, but you get the idea, a pastry shop doing an April Fool’s tribute.
That’s not how some of my friends saw it, though. I posted an uncropped version of that photo on Facebook, and it sparked a dozen comments. Why? Some people saw it as racially offensive, as blackface, or minstrel imagery. To be honest, that didn’t even occur to me when I saw the fish in the shop window, and I had no intention of approving a racist pastry or image. And I don’t think that was the intention of Sandri’s pastry chefs, either. But to be fair, I’ll post some of the comparison photos my friends posted.
One friend wrote: “I’m gonna go with “racist”. /runs out of the room” Another: “I’m going with racist too. Blackface caricatures were/are always accompanied with red lips that are exaggerated in both color and size. This caricature lives on in the Netherlands with Black Pete, so I’d say it’s extremely unlikely that you’d see a non-racial use of the exact same features in another European country that’s not that far away.”
I guess I’m kind of innocent, or that being culturally bilingual, I just saw the fish, and my post, as something sort of weird looking, but typical of the artistry of Sandri’s chefs and their sometimes off sense of design and humor.
But the whole affair just tells you how racially charged the U.S. has become, especially after the spate of police killing of unarmed African-Americans, and the despicable campaign that El Cheeto Loco ran last year, and the racism that runs through whole swathes of American society. And it shows how cultural context colors what we see and how we act.
I needed a reality check, so I asked around. My Italian friends said variants of this: They’re April Fool’s fish, and Perugia makes chocolate, so… In fact, some were offended that their city’s premier café would be seen as racist. I posted a comment to explain their view, but few responded. By then, the photo was probably forgotten, being buried way down in people’s Facebook news feeds.
One of my Italian friends really took offense and wanted an apology from you guys in the U.S. She wrote: “A 1,000 thanks Anthony for having explained to your American friends that there was nothing racist in the photo you posted. Simply put, pasticceria Sandri, as you well know, is the oldest in Perugia, and it makes pastries that track events and puts them in its front window. In fact yesterday was 1 April, the day we celebrate jokes we call ‘April fish.’ Don’t forget that chocolate is dark.”
What does all this mean? I’m still not sure, except that when I see something odd in another country, I’ll think hard about its implications before I post of photo of it.