A 55-year-old seventh-grade history teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District recently found himself surrounded by police cars outside his Torrance home after a white woman called 911 to report that a Latino man had kidnapped a white toddler.

The officers wanted to know the identity of the child Abel Mata had just been holding.

The child was his grandson, Mata explained. His daughter, Athena, had dropped 2-year-old Milo off for babysitting, as she did routinely, and the boy was inside the house with his grandmother.

As Mata and the officers walked toward the door, a blond woman came out of a neighboring apartment and approached them, shouting that he, Mata, was the abductor. She carried a samurai sword, Mata said.

The incident is described Friday morning in a Los Angeles Times article, which notes that Mata’s offense, by all appearances, was being the brown-skinned grandfather of a light-skinned child. The contrast — not unusual in a state where mixed-race families are common and Latinos, like other groups, have kin whose skin and hair color span the spectrum — had been pointed out before, according to The Times.

But kidnapping?

“I was totally caught off-guard,” the 55-year-old Mata told the newspaper. “Literally like somebody punching you in the face and knocking you down.”

Mata’s experience was extreme but in many ways not surprising, according to experts cited by The Times. People still often rely heavily on skin color to set standards of beauty and assign worth, and to determine who is family or a babysitter, or worse.

“While oftentimes we argue that the United States is quote-unquote “post-racial,” we see a lot of incidents such as this one in Torrance, where we can see how race is still really a fundamental feature that we use when we interact with one another,” Natalie Masuoka, an associate professor of political science and Asian American studies at UCLA, told The Times.

Before they left, the officers warned Mata not to approach his neighbor. If he did, he could be charged with harassment, he reported.

“They said if I talk to her and she says I’m harassing her, I’m the one that could get in trouble,” he told The Times.

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