I was in a crowded public area with a friend last week when I saw a woman in a really short skirt. I kind of nudged my friend and looked toward the woman and my friend didn't see her. I whispered to her what I was looking at (she skirt was really short) and my friend still didn't see her. I tried a few other descriptors: the woman with short hair, the woman with brown shoes, etc. Then I realized what I didn't say. I didn't say that it was the black woman. That would have pointed her out right away.
Aside from why it was so important to me to point this woman out (it wasn't that important, but once I had said it, for some reason, I wanted to make my point), I thought later about why I was so hesitant to point out the woman's race. I was willing to use just about every other descriptor, but for some reason if felt wrong to say "the black woman."
I have noticed this at school too. The kids were very direct. "Who hit you?" "That Mexican kid." Who is in your class?" "That black girl." This can be a little jarring, but it's very clear. Teachers, on the other hand, went out of their way to not mention race when pointing out a child. I've heard teachers point to a child across the playground, and mention what child is wearing, what position he or she is in, what his or her haircut is... all when pointing out the race of the child would have cleared it up immediately.
A friend recently shared an interesting article about race and how we talk to children about race. It turns out that it is essential that we talk directly to children about this subject. Many of us are pretty uncomfortable with this and like to take the "colorblind" approach, but this may not be the best way to deal with it. Comedian Stephen Colbert does an excellent job of pointing out how silly this approach can be, saying things like "I don't see color. People tell me I'm white and I believe them because police officers call me 'sir.'"
I'm not entirely sure I've always done a good job with this subject - clearly I have my own issues around it, as we all do. But I've found that when students ask me questions and I answer directly, they're happy to get an answer. They're naturally curious and want to know why my skin doesn't look like theirs, and they're not afraid to keep asking questions - everything from why I get sunburned so fast to if I had any black friends growing up. I wonder if we shouldn't take this approach more often.