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New Documentary Little White Lie Explores One Family's Long-Kept Secret

LAINA DAWES, Refinery29., March 20, 2015

When Lacey Schwartz was in nursery school, a little white boy seemed enraptured with her features. After staring at her intently, he said, "show me the color of your gums." And, she did. Over 30 years later, Schwartz, the filmmaker and principal subject of the documentary Little White Lie, recounts her first memory of feeling different. Being a Jewish, biracial girl growing up in a predominately white upstate New York community in the 1970s wouldn't be a pleasant experience for anyone, but for Schwartz, who was told that her cappuccino-hued skin and curly hair was a hereditary gift from her Sicilian paternal great-grandfather, it was confusing. With no one to tell her otherwise, she believed it.

"White people will believe anything," her biracial high school boyfriend says about her family's avoidance of her heritage. As an interviewee in the film, he was just one of the people outside of her family who were able to pinpoint her ethnicity even before she was aware of it. Little White Lie, which took eight years to complete and will premiere on PBS on March 23, documents Schwartz's discovery about her heritage, the uncovering of her mother's secret interracial affair, and the denial her entire family was complicit in...or were they? Refinery29 chatted with Schwartz about the film and her journey to claiming her Black identity.

As a trans-racial adoptee, the issues surrounding family resonated with me, but I don't know if I would have the courage to embark on such a journey such as yours. What led you to work on this film?

"All I can really do is to speak from my experience, so when it connects with other people, it means so much. I made this film when I was living in a racial closet. I was out in the world, identifying as Black, but when I was with my family, I would come home and identify as the nice, white Jewish girl that I always was. I was really struggling to internally integrate my identities, as it felt compartmentalized. I started exploring what it meant to be Black and Jewish, expanding my own mind. Because I grew up being Jewish, which was synonymous with being white, I realized that as much as I could extend my mind and educate myself about the full complexity of who Jews are, I realized that until I uncovered my family secrets I could never feel that I had successfully integrated my dual identities of being. I realized that before I could really 'talk the talk' and talk about larger issues of identity and dual identity, I really had to go through the process of having these difficult conversations with my family and uncover my own family secrets before I could move forward. I decided to document that process through film."

I was surprised that your immediate and extended family agreed to be in the film.

"I give a lot of credit to my family. They were pretty open to the process. I told them that I wanted to make a film about my life, and I was dedicated to doing it no matter what, but I wanted to ask them to participate. It wasn't required and I understood if they didn't want to. But, they all agreed to participate in it. I think at the time I started making the film, it was at the point where everyone knew it was a quintessential family secret in which everyone knew the truth but we weren't talking about it. It almost seemed inevitable that we had to talk, but at the same time, nothing had really pushed us to talk."

Your mother seemed to struggle between being an independent, sexual woman and her role as a wife and mother within a very traditional culture, which might have led her to her affair. Is this correct?

"I think with my mother...when I set out to do this film, I was trying to really understand and accept what had happened, kind of looking at it as 'it is what it is,' knowing that I couldn't change anything, but really trying to make peace with it. I think that I understand that life is complex — that you take actions and you don't really understand the ramifications as to how it is going to affect other people. It doesn't mean, though, that I completely excuse my mother, but I certainly think that all you can do is what you can do from this point out. There is nothing you can do to change what happened. I think that she wasn't intending to hurt people, even though there were moments in which she was being quite selfish. I think that there was a lot going on at that time, and she didn't understand the ramifications of her actions."

It must have been extremely difficult for your dad to go through all of this. There was one section where he seems to be struggling in terms of acknowledging that he is not your biological father [who passed away during filming]. I wasn't sure if his reluctance to talk was centered on his wife having an affair, or because the man she had the affair with was Black. What is that relationship like today?

"He doesn't talk to me about it any more. He has never expressed to me that the issue with me is that I'm Black — he has never said anything explicitly about that. I do think that my father does struggle but that everyone deals with things in their own way. It's hard for my father to talk about it, and what you really see in the film is the majority of the conversations we have had about this issue. He did agree to participate, and I'm grateful that we did and we do have a relationship. For me, it was getting to the part of accepting what had happened, and I wanted him to talk about everything, but he was only willing to talk so much. And, that was something I had to accept. As long as I was able to speak my truth, then I had to accept his boundaries."

Was there any personal struggle with revealing so much about yourself and your family?

"Going into it, I didn't necessarily think that my inner strength was going to get me through this process. I have reflected on it, and I do recognize that I am resilient. The resilience is also about...there has been a lot of stuff that has been difficult for me and has hurt me and left me feeling very anxious, very unsettled. But, I realized at one point that I didn't want to live my entire life like that. I see so many people who struggle with their own family secrets, and when they are open about it, it's very, very deep.

"It's really important that we find healthy ways to deal with it and move on and not be held back by all these secrets. So for me, it was about recognizing the fact that in so many ways, I have a lot going for me, and so it seems so incredibly unfortunate that even though I could be angry and say 'people did this to me,' that in the end, I would be the one who would live my life suffering because of what other people did. And, I didn't want that. It certainly wasn't easy to try and figure out how to get myself out of this situation, but I think that I realized that it would be very worthwhile for me to share it with the public. That has been much easier than to share it with my family. That was the most difficult part, was the intimate space, and then it became really about the value of sharing it, and hoping that people could use this project as a tool for both difficult and positive dialogue in their own life."

Little White Lie isn't just a documentary - it's a movement. There are some incredible, mind-blowing experiences that people have posted on the film's website that show how destructive family secrets can be. The amount of lies and the deception that people experience within their families is shocking. What have you thought when reading some of the stories?

"I find them heartbreaking, but I also find it mind-boggling how you can be so shocked when it can be so easy for these things to happen. While there are all these different issues, this stuff happens all the time. For me, it's about getting out of a place where we stigmatize people. Where people won't feel ashamed when something happens to them, and they need to understand that what happened isn't their fault. So for all these that are painful for people, I think we can create a space where healthy conversations can happen. We will be a healthy society. I think that families are healthy building blocks for society, and I don't think we can expect to have a healthy society when the building blocks we have to create it aren't healthy."

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