11/03/2011 06:31 pm ET | Updated Jan 03, 2012

Is Beauty Black or White?

I'm not in the habit of shopping for dolls or conjuring up theories about the nature and politics of beauty. But walking through Shoprite the other day, a Wal-Mart-wannabe down the road from where my wife and I live in Cape Town, South Africa, I couldn't help but notice something peculiar in one of the aisles.

All around me in the store were black people, but staring back at me from the shelves of one of the aisles was a battery of dolls, all of them white. I'd like to call it peculiar, but truth be told I've walked down aisles like that a hundred times before and never stopped to take notice, much less get angry and write a blog. Perhaps moving from lily-white New Hampshire and England to a country where eight in ten people is black made the contrast stark enough for me to wake up and take notice.

Not only were all the dolls white, but every last one of them -- barbies, baby dolls, girl dolls -- had the same basic package: blonde hair, blue eyes, pink lips, and that sweet-insipid smile. Hair and clothing styles differed here and there, but the effect was unmistakable: one grand army of Reese Witherspoons marching in blonde lock-step to steal the hearts and fire the imaginations of little black girls from city to township.

When it comes to defining "what's beautiful", I'd like to say I'm with the old philosopher who says, "You know it when you see it." That is, beauty -- like truth and virtue -- just radiates out at you because it is, inmistakably, so. As the British poet John Keats reminds, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

But what if the thing we call "beauty" has been given a very particular face all our lives? What if that face is found smiling back at us day and night in glossy magazines, on TV and the internet, and on billboards on high? And what if that face doesn't happen to look anything like our own?

In the landmark 1947 Doll Test in the United States, conducted to get a measure of segregation's effects on African-American children in the run-up to Brown v. Board of Education, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark asked black children to choose between a white doll and a doll painted brown (there were no brown ones to be found) in response to a series of questions about beauty and the like. You can guess the results.

Then someone at CNN got the mischievous idea to reenact the test last year, in the age of Obama. Presented with five cartoon pictures of little girls with skin ranging from white to black, American children of all race groups were asked a similar set of queries like "Who's the pretty girl? Who's the smart girl? Who's the good girl?" The little fingers pointed mainly in the direction of white, with an especially strong "white bias" on the part of white kids. To borrow from CNN's report:

The tests showed that white children, as a whole, responded with a high rate of what researchers call "white bias," identifying the color of their own skin with positive attributes and darker skin with negative attributes. Spencer said even black children, as a whole, have some bias toward whiteness, but far less than white children.

"All kids on the one hand are exposed to the stereotypes" she said. "What's really significant here is that white children are learning or maintaining those stereotypes much more strongly than the African-American children. Therefore, the white youngsters are even more stereotypic in their responses concerning beliefs and attitudes and preferences than the African-American children."

Spencer says this may be happening because "parents of color in particular had the extra burden of helping to function as an interpretative wedge for their children. Parents have to reframe what children experience ... and the fact that white children and families don't have to engage in that level of parenting [suggests] a level of entitlement. You can spend more time on spelling, math and reading, because you don't have that extra task of basically reframing messages that children get from society."

Spencer was also surprised that children's ideas about race, for the most part, don't evolve as they get older. The study showed that children's ideas about race change little from age 5 to age 10... Spencer said the study points to major trends but is not the definitive word on children and race. It does lead her to conclude that even in 2010, "we are still living in a society where dark things are devalued and white things are valued."

And there's the rub: we know in our heads that beauty and smarts are not nearly as superficial as a particular tone of skin or shade of hair or eyes -- and virtue and truth are less superficial still. But we humans are an impressionable lot, especially our kids. So when we fill our TV screens and magazine stands and all the rest with a particular image of beauty (and virtue and truth), that image starts to sink in. What's more, when that image consistently looks like one group of people (whites) and not another (people of color), the effect is to reinforce a damning set of racial hierarchies that have bedeviled our world far too long.

Who can blame the little black girl for thinking her likeness ugly, bad, and stupid and the little white face pretty, good, and smart when that is what she's been taught to think all her life?

Countries like South Africa and the United States have taken commendable, if long-overdue, strides in overcoming formalized racism in our constitutions and legal codes. England, South Africa's colonizer, officially abolished slavery in 1833. It's time we matched that commitment to "equal rights for all" with a similar commitment to rooting out the still more stubborn, and all-too-insidious, informal racisms that mark the modern day.

Daniel and his wife, Sindiso Mnisi Weeks, write on race and politics on their blog "Mixed Up on Cecil Road".