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'Little White Lie' Uncovers Filmmaker's Biracial Identity

George Itzhak, NBC, March 23, 2015

It's something most of us take for granted. We can look at a family photo, and it makes sense to us. In our own faces, we can spot mom's eyebrows, dad's nose, maybe grandma's smile.

For Lacey Schwartz, it wasn't that simple. She grew up in a middle class white Jewish family in Woodstock, New York, and by all accounts she felt white and Jewish. By the time Schwartz turned 18, it was apparent that her family was living with a lie, a Little White Lie, as her personal documentary is titled.

Despite how Schwartz saw herself growing up, the way the world saw her was apparent when she was accepted to Georgetown. Like most students entering college, she had to pencil in a circle that defined her race. She left that section blank, but based on a photo, Georgetown invited her to join the Black Students Union. Around this time in her life, a big truth is revealed: her biological father is a Black man her mother had an affair with in the early years of her marriage.

What unfolds throughout this deeply personal documentary is not only a search for identity and a sort of belated coming-of-age, but an ever dynamic relationship between a girl and her mother and father. As Lacey proudly declares that she identifies as African-American, the white father that raised her is almost indignant. "You think I don't know that?" he declares. "You think I don't know from the music you listen to and the people you hang out with?"

Lacey's relationship with her mother Peggy is tested by pressing questions about her origins. Lacey needs to understand what her mother did and why, and in one of the most climactic moments of the film, a tearful Peggy justifies herself to her daughter: "Lacey, you have to realize, before I was your mother, I was a person, and I was a girl and I was a woman."

In the years following Lacey's self-discovery, she has become a community leader, and a sort of champion for those who identify as both Black and Jewish. She is the National Outreach Director for Be'chol Lashon [Hebrew for 'In Every Tongue'], an organization that celebrates Jewish ethnic diversity.

NBCBLK recently spoke with Lacey Schwartz about the making of "Little White Lie" and the negotiation of her African-American and Jewish identities.

The personal narrative genre of documentary filmmaking is a popular and robust one. What brought you to the place where you knew you had to embark on this personal journey through film?

When I first started doing this film, I thought I actually wanted to do a film that was a broader look at Jewish diversity, and the sort of racial closet that exists. I was trying to figure out my own two identities and I was fascinated by how other people were dealing with it. I started doing a lot of research, particularly on Black Jews. I was looking at how other people were dealing with their identities and I thought I was going to do a film that was broad and topical, and then include my own story.

I had a topic, but I was struggling to figure out the story. So I started pushing myself — why do I want to do this? I saw this was really about struggling with my own identities and how to integrate them. And if I was really honest, my whole struggle with my identity was so much about my family's secret.

So many of these issues of dealing with diversity are very personal. It's about the conversations we are and are not having in our families. For me it sounded almost disingenuous to do a broader film on this larger issue when I needed to do the work myself on my own two identities.

At the funeral for your biological father Rodney, we see you join the ranks of his other children, and it is clearly an important, and uncomfortable moment for you. Was there ever a question of bringing cameras into this situation?

I know it's a funeral and it seems super intimate, but it honestly was quite a scene. My biological father was a fairly well known guy and a lot of people came out of the woodwork for that funeral. So it was actually was one of our largest shoots. We had the most crew there and we didn't stick out actually. It was one of things where it didn't feel strange that we had a camera because there was just so much going on there.

"Little White Lie" ends with your wedding to an African-American man, with your white Jewish parents walking you down the aisle. Now that you've started your own family, is there anything you want to pass on to your children in terms of understanding identity and race?

I really hope to raise them to be comfortable with who they are, but also to be aware of the reality of who they are, and the reality of the world they live in. So it's a combination of awareness, to raise them to be aware, and to be comfortable and to understand things about who they are.

On the "share your little white lie" section of the website, anyone can submit a secret or a lie they have been living. What does this interactive element bring to the experience of your film?

It allows people to not only watch the film and learn about my story, but to also to let their own experiences unearth. I wanted to provide people a safe space for people to share what their "colored lies" are and not only share them, but talk about what motivates them to share them, and why that's a positive thing.

What kind of connection is there between this film and your community work with Be'chol Lashon?

Be'chol Lashon is an organization that works on racial ethnic and cultural diversity, and they were the executive producer of the film. A lot of the work we do with Be'chol Lashon is about identity, and who feels comfortable walking into Jewish spaces and why. We talk about how to integrate identities and how to allow people to be who they are completely and totally. We at Be'chol Lashon work with training and various forms of community work and this is another tool to give people a place within the Jewish community to have those conversations.

Do you think you're a role model?

It's a weird thing for me to say that I'm a role model, but I do think that when I was struggling to figure out my own situation, I definitely looked to other people for inspiration for how to deal with my own story. I'd be more than happy for my own story to be out there and to do the same thing. I am a representative of this experience, but I don't think I'm the representative.

"Little White Lie" will be broadcast on Independent Lens on PBS on March 23rd

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