NEW YORK - Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in upstate New York, where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well.
“I grew up in a world with synagogue, Hebrew school, bar mitzvahs. So it never occurred to me that I was passing. I actually grew up believing I was white,” Schwartz says in her recent film, Little White Lie, over footage of family gatherings, childhood pictures, and her own bat-mitzvah.
Schwartz’s parents, Robert and Peggy Schwartz, had met and married young in their native New York, moving upstate to the town of Woodstock in 1972. Lacey was born in 1977. Growing up in a largely white community, she sometimes wondered why she looked different. The first time was in nursery school, she says in the film, when a classmate remarked on it.
“That’s the earliest memory I have of feeling different,” she says. “It was embarrassing to be singled out, and it made me feel ugly. When I told my parents what had happened, my father pulled out an old photo album, and told me I took after his great-grandfather, who was Sicilian.”
Family and family friends all accepted the logic, and so did Schwartz. Her father darkly tanned in summer, after all, and her mother’s hair was curly, like hers. But Schwartz was discomfited at times by strangers’ questions, and did not like being different. She was mistaken for an Ethiopian Jewish adoptee at one temple event, and in the integrated high school she attended in Kingston, New York, black classmates sometimes asked her what she “was.”
“I think one of the biggest things in my story, and in this film, is about the power of denial,” she said in an interview. “And when I was making this film, I was very interested in looking at what is the timeline of denial, what is the anatomy of denial?”
In her case, she said, she began to suspect that she was biracial when she was 16, around the time that her parents separated. “There’s the stage where you deep down know the truth, but you’re not ready to admit it yourself,” she said.
It was only when she was admitted to Georgetown University and the black student union invited her to join that she became certain.
“For the first time in my life, I felt that I belonged,” she says in the film. “And somehow, I just knew that “black” was who I was. Of course, that meant there was something my parents weren’t telling me. I came home from my freshman year in college and decided I was going to ask my mother why I looked the way I did.”
Schwartz’s mother admitted her affair with a family friend, an African American man from New York.
“It was difficult,” Schwartz said. “I certainly had a fear in particular of losing my father, if we talked about the fact that he wasn’t my biological father. I think I was really feeling confusion but also relief, knowing why I looked the way I did and where I came from.”
Her relationship with her father now, she said, has not changed very much. “We’ve come out the other side with a very strong relationship, and very much the same relationship,” Schwartz said.
“I decided to make the film when I was in my mid-20s, the period when I considered I was living in a racial closet, where I was out and about kind of identifying as being black, but I would go home to my [extended] family and identify as white,” she said. “I was struggling to figure out how to integrate my identities internally, so I started doing a lot of research on Jewish diversity, because I had grown up with being Jewish being synonymous with being white.”
The film, which will air on American public television in March, took nearly 10 years to make, Schwartz said at a recent screening at the School of Visual Arts in New York. “I thought about it for two years, developed it for two, shot it for three years, edited it for three years,” she said, adding, “Obviously, I wasn’t doing those things every day; there would be big pauses.”
One of those was for her marriage to an African American man - her parents walked her down the aisle together at the wedding - and another for the birth of her twin boys, now toddlers.
“I can’t say I feel closer to black people than white people,” Schwartz says. My family and the friends I grew up with, I’m still very close to them. That said, I’ve also made a lot of new friends. My husband is black, I have a lot of close black friends, I have a lot of close Asian friends. I can’t say there’s one race or kind of person I connect to more.”
Her Jewish identity also remains primary, she said, and she has screened the film in Israel and for Jewish groups in the U.S. as well.
“We really thought it was important that we make sure we reach all different audiences, go to black film festivals, Jewish film festivals, documentary film festivals, just to show that this film is about race. And certainly it has to do with my Jewish identity, but it’s really about family secrets, and anyone can relate and connect to that,” Schwartz said.
“I thought that different audiences would have very different reactions and questions,” she said, “but I’ve found that the way people connect is very personal, and we can’t access that just by looking at them or understanding what niche they fit into. Everyone has their own family secret, their own family story.”
In fact, she said, she sees Little White Lie as a tool for audiences in uncovering damaging family secrets. The film’s website has a page for viewers to submit their own stories, and at screenings, Schwartz sets up a table with placards printed with quotations from the film. “And I say, ‘Little white lie equals family secrets plus denial - What was your family secret?’”
“I want people to think less about me when they’re walking out of the film, and more about their own stories,” she said. “People want to come up after screenings and say, ‘This is my story.’ I don’t want them to tell me. I want them to write it down, to participate in the conversation.”