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'Little White Lie' uncovers biracial identity

Naomi Pfefferman, Jewish Journal, March 13, 2015

When Lacey Schwartz was a child in Woodstock, N.Y., she assumed she was "the daughter of a nice Jewish girl and a nice Jewish boy," she says in her documentary, "Little White Lie," which will air on PBS SoCal on March 23. "I wasn't pretending to be something I wasn't. I actually grew up thinking that I was white."

But since preschool, Schwartz, now 38, had fielded awkward questions about her dark skin and curly hair; a congregant at her bat mitzvah assumed she was an Ethiopian Jew. In high school, African-American students stared hard at Lacey in the hallways and confronted her about her racial background. Her parents waved off these queries by telling her she took after a Sicilian grandfather.

It was only after Schwartz was recruited by the Black Student Alliance while attending Georgetown University that she gathered the courage to press her mother, Peggy Schwartz, for the truth. After much prodding, Peggy finally admitted that Schwartz's biological father was actually an African-American family friend, Rodney Parker, now deceased, with whom she had carried on a longtime extramarital affair.

"Little White Lie follows Lacey's efforts to unravel the truth and talk with her relatives about the family secret, as well as to cast aside her false previous identity and to embrace a new one as a person who is both biracial and Jewish.

In family photos and videos shown in the film, it's clear just how different Lacey Schwartz looks from her Ashkenazi Jewish relatives. So how could her family so easily perpetuate its little white lie? One reason, perhaps, was the insular nature of Schwartz's Jewish childhood: "So often in communities there's such an incentive to emphasize tradition, to prioritize what we have in common and to ignore what we don't," Schwartz, who lives in Montclair, N.J., said in a telephone interview.

"In my film, I was very interested in asking, 'How could something like this happen?' " she added. "I wanted to explore the anatomy and timelines of denial."

Even though Schwartz believed she was white throughout her childhood, it pained her at times to look so different from students at her all-white elementary school. Questions about her appearance made her feel "embarrassed, singled out … and ugly,"" she says in the film. To fit in, she straightened her hair and, on a school questionnaire that asked what she most wanted to change about herself, she wrote that she wished she had lighter skin. When Schwartz"s application to Georgetown University requested that she check a box indicating her race, she left that section blank.

But she did attach a photograph of herself to her application, and as a result Georgetown admitted her as an African-American student and forwarded her information to its Black Student Alliance. Schwartz began attending the group's meetings and for the first time felt that she truly belonged. Over the following summer, she began peppering her mother with questions about her origins and learned of Peggy's torrid affair with Parker, a man Peggy had met while working for New York's parks department. Peggy's infidelity, in part, led to her divorce from her husband when Lacey was 16.

Yet even after Peggy revealed that Lacey was, in fact, biracial, the family refused to further discuss the issue. The result was that by the time Schwartz was a student at Harvard Law School, she had "compartmentalized" her Jewish and Black identities and was essentially living in a "racial closet." Attending programs at Reboot, an organization that helps modern Jews forge meaningful identities, led Schwartz to explore how to merge her diverse selves by embarking on a documentary she initially believed would spotlight Black Jews. Eventually, however, she decided to focus the documentary solely on herself. "I realized that as I was struggling to incorporate my own identities, I was never going to be able to do that until I dealt with my own family's secret," she explained.

Schwartz began filming what would become "Little White Lie" in earnest in 2006, and for the next three years she eased into increasingly pointed conversations with her parents, relatives and friends.

Her father proved to be the most reluctant among them to engage: When Schwartz tells him that "I need to openly acknowledge to you that I identify as a Black woman, he sarcastically retorts, "What a surprise." Later, he describes his ex-wife's affair as "the ultimate betrayal."

Peggy explains her reasons for her affair during a visit to the New York playground where she had met her lover: "Before I was your mother," she tells Lacey, "I was a person ... a girl, a woman."

"After I finally talked to my father, I had this utopia in my mind that we would all heal together," Schwartz says in the film. "But in the end, I couldn't heal my parents. ... I needed to accept them for who they are, just like I wanted them to accept me for who I am."

Lacey's father still doesn't like to talk about the family secret or the movie, though her mother "is really into the film," she said. "She feels grateful that the movie's process has brought us a lot closer … and that it has helped her to learn how to stop lying and live a more honest life." (Peggy Schwartz was not available for an interview by the Journal's press time.)

The process of making "Little White Lie" has been cathartic for Lacey as well, and has helped her to construct an identity that is both Black and Jewish. The film captures her marriage to an African-American man who was raised Baptist; the wedding was officiated by his childhood pastor but also incorporated Jewish traditions, such as the breaking of a glass, by the groom, at the end of the ceremony.

In our conversation, Schwartz said she intends to raise their twin 18-month-old boys with aspects of Judaism as well as their father's heritage. And she is now the national outreach director and New York regional director of a nonprofit group, Be'chol Lashon, which explores racial, ethnic and cultural diversity among Jews.

"As a kid I didn't really like the name 'Schwartz,' " she says in the film. "But now the name is perfect for me: a clearly Jewish name that literally means 'black.' "

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