Lacey Schwartz grew up as a white, Jewish girl in the predominantly white community of Woodstock, N.Y., raised by Peggy and Robert Schwartz. But what she didn’t know at the time was that her biological father was black.
The idea of “passing” for white has long been a part of African-American culture. But Schwartz’s story isn’t one about passing. She truly believed that she was white.
How she came to embrace her biracial identity and confront her parents about the family secret is the subject of her documentary, Little White Lie, which airs Monday on PBS as part of its Independent Lens series.
Judging someone’s racial identity by appearance alone can be tricky—the recent story about Nancy Giles’ reaction to Jay Smooth makes that point fairly obvious. But when Schwartz was a child, her light-brown skin and curly hair elicited comments from people outside her immediate family circle: At her bat mitzvah, a woman from the synagogue mistook Lacey for an Ethiopian Jew.
When Schwartz questioned her parents, her father showed her a portrait of her Sicilian great-grandfather, whose darker skin seemingly provided an explanation for her own. Schwartz, like everyone around her, bought this story.
“To me, one of the big themes of my story and the film is about the incredible power of denial,” said Schwartz, 38, speaking from her home in Montclair, N.J., where she lives with her husband and 18-month-old twin boys. “And one of the things I was very interested in looking at is what I consider to be the anatomy of denial.”
That denial allowed her parents to convince themselves that the great-grandfather story was true. Still, Schwartz couldn’t shake that feeling of otherness. When she began attending a more diverse high school, she would get stares from black girls and didn’t understand why. Her parent’s divorce, right before she turned 16, only led to more unanswered questions.
“When my parents split, it was very earth-shattering for me, but at the same time very eye-opening,” Schwartz said. “A few things happened that weren’t adding up anymore,” she said, noting that until then, “we could ignore them because we had this nice, happy, nuclear family. And when that broke up, it made me question a lot of things.”
It wasn’t until after she applied to Georgetown University that Schwartz began searching for answers. Although she had not checked a box next to a racial preference on the application, the university accepted her as an African American based on a photo that accompanied the application.
At that moment, Schwartz said she felt she had been given permission to explore who she really was. She began attending meetings of the Black Student Alliance and was embraced immediately. She finally had found a place where her differences didn’t feel so out of the ordinary.
Her on-campus experiences compelled Schwartz to confront her mother, who finally admitted to having had an affair with an African-American friend named Rodney Parker.
“I realized I was never going to integrate my identities until I uncovered my family secrets,” Schwartz said. “It’s relatively common that so much of our identities are caught up in our family stuff, and that can hold us back.”
She said the film was her way of providing a blueprint for others about “how to have those difficult but important conversations that allow you to move forward with your life.”
Indeed, removing the veil of secrecy that hovered over their relationship has helped both mother and daughter come to terms with the past. Her mother “was, for a long time, her own worst enemy because she wasn’t able to take responsibility and free herself from it, and doing this process has really helped her with that,” Schwartz said.
The healing process for the father who raised her has not been as smooth, Schwartz said.
When Schwartz tells him on camera that she identifies as a black women, this is one of the most compelling and emotional moments in the documentary.
“I was very much living my life afraid of my father finding out how I identified because I didn’t want to hurt him,” Schwartz said. “And we’ve moved past that. I’m in a space now where I can identify however I want and I don’t have to protect him any longer.”
“I had to learn to accept how he dealt with it,” Schwartz said. “I can’t make him deal with things the way I want to deal with them, and I had be OK with that.”
“Just like I wanted him to accept me, I had to accept him for who he is,” Schwartz said. "That was a big learning process for me, and it’s put us in a much better place.”