On the first day of school my sophomore year, my Spanish teacher asked one of my peers whether he had spent much time at the beach during the summer.
"Yeah, I surfed most days," the student said.
"I knew it! I could tell!" the Spanish teacher celebrated. "You have the most amazing tan I've ever seen."
While his skin was remarkably tan, there was one problem… dark brown was his natural skin color. Year-round, even. An awkward silence fell over the room because most of us students knew that she got lucky with her beach guess and the tan was not temporary, but correcting her might make the kid feel even more uncomfortable.
When you're in a school district that's 95% white, mistakes like this do happen. I remember in elementary school, I had friends that were very plainly not Caucasian, but it never occurred to me that some of them were anything but white. With only a juvenile understanding of race, I figured people who acted like me and that I liked must be "white." Sure, they had really dark skin, but deep down, they must actually be white. In a way, I thought I was giving them the benefit of the doubt, which is all sorts of horrible, but the kind of notions a kid has to navigate through in a world of white privilege surrounded by limited diversity.
Occasionally, I think back to the incident and wonder at what point she realized his "tan" wasn't going away. Did it take a week, two weeks, maybe a month for humiliation to set in? Did it surprise her to discover that the kid who acted just like the others in an otherwise all-white class wasn't white after all?
If it makes anyone feel better, the Spanish teacher was diagnosed with cancer a few months later. But she was also a nice woman, so don't revel in it! Subconsciously whitewashing the people around her makes her ignorant, but taking pleasure in her getting cancer makes you an asshole… and that's probably worse.