Syracuse University Magazine


Kimberly Davidson

Viewing Differences

Kimberly Davidson’s interest in issues of race, ethnicity, and cultural identity in early childhood emanated from personal experience. When she was a child, her older sister married a man who is African American. “I grew up in Tennessee, and we lived in a rural town where there is still a lot of racism. So their marriage was a controversial thing at that time,” says Davidson, a doctoral student in the Falk College Department of Child and Family Studies. “I was very young when they married, so my brother-in-law has been a part of my family for a long time. And I think that helped expand my worldview—recognizing where racism does still exist—whereas a lot of people want to believe it’s not a problem.”

Her interest in early development was triggered by observing her two nieces as they navigated the complexities of growing up biracial in a culture that she views as still largely characterized by two distinct groups: one black, one white. “I wondered, when do they start to recognize that they are different from their classmates, and how do they feel about that,” she says. “I started thinking about what factors go into their identity development, and that got me really interested in what we’re teaching young children about it.”

Her quest for answers led to her doctoral studies at SU, where her dissertation research project explores how preschoolers learn about race and ethnicity. To support that work, she received a $25,000 Head Start Research Scholars grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families, one of only six grants awarded nationally. Working with Jaipaul Roopnarine, the Jack Reilly Professor of Child and Family Studies and director of the Reilly Institute for Early Childhood and Provider Education, Davidson collaborates with area Head Start centers to study the ways that home environment, neighborhood, and child care programs influence the racial and ethnical socialization of young kids. “We are asking parents or caregivers, as well as Head Start teachers, the same sets of questions about what they teach young children about their racial and ethnic background or about other racial and ethnic groups,” says Davidson, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Tennessee. “We’ll then compare what happens at home with what happens in the Head Start classroom, and see if those differences or similarities have effects on the children’s academic outcomes.”

Participants’ responses reveal a range of attitudes regarding how to teach young children about race and ethnicity, including questioning whether it is necessary or helpful to do so at all. “It’s interesting, because some people will say, ‘You want me to talk to my 3-year-old about race?’” Davidson says. “But other families say it’s very important, and they do try to slowly introduce topics about discrimination, cultural differences, and the contributions of different ethnic groups.”

Davidson is excited about the study’s potential influence on Head Start policy related to multicultural curriculum, teacher professional development, and parent involvement strategies. Most of all, she hopes the project will encourage conversation between parents and teachers about incorporating diverse cultural values into preschool classrooms. “Even at this young age, children are recognizing that people are different and are starting to assign meaning to those differences,” she says. “We’re at the beginning of a long process, but hopefully we can start discussions that lead to change.”  —Amy Speach