“Little White Lie”: Black And Jewish Filmmaker Documents Growing Up Believing She Was White

August 4, 2014  |  

Most of us know from a very early age that we’re Black. It happens so early that many of us can’t remember a specific conversation or moment where we learned this truth. But that wasn’t the case for 37-year-old Lacey Schwartz.

Schwartz, a Harvard Law School graduate turned filmmaker, didn’t learn she was Black until she was 18 years old. While many of us would look at Schwartz, with her light brown skin and dark, curly hair and suspect immediately that she has at least some Black ancestry, she was told by her Jewish family that she was White and had inherited her dark skin from her Sicilian grandfather.

Her story is so fascinating, so remarkable, that she decided to make it the subject for her documentary Little White Lie which premiered at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival this past weekend. It will eventually make its way to PBS next year.

The documentary, narrated, obviously, by Schwartz herself, shows her at a funeral, discussions with her girlfriends and therapy sessions where she asks over and over again how she was able to “pass for white.”

In the film, Schwartz offers a bit of an explanation: “I come from a long line of New York Jews. My family knew who they were, and they defined who I was.”

Schwartz was an only child who grew up in Woodstock, N.Y. Her parents Peggy and Robert Schwartz never discussed her Black side with her.

But that didn’t stop her from questioning her identity. In a recent interview, Schwartz said that before she entered college, where she would learn the truth, others had plenty of comments about her Black-looking features.

“I was already questioning my whiteness because of what other people said and because I was aware that I looked different from my family.”

In the video below, you can watch as Schwartz describes the time a boy during her childhood asked to see her gums to prove whether or not she was White or Black. And during her Bat Mitzvah a synagogue member told her it was nice to have an Ethiopian Jew in their midst.

Based on a picture she included with her application, the University of Georgetown forwarded her name and information to the Black Student Association who contacted her. Schwartz said the university gave her permission to explore her Black identity.

After her first year of college, she confronted her mother Peggy, who then acknowledged that her biological father was an African American man with whom she’d had an extramarital affair.

Schwartz said her life has allowed her to genuinely experience what it’s like to be both Black and White. But discovering her Black heritage didn’t change her, it just influenced how she saw the world.

“It’s how you’re seeing interactions, how comments come across to you. When you’re in town, are you aware of how many people of color are there? Are you aware when you’re in a work environment?”

And she acknowledged that being White has its perks.

“There are benefits to being white- for me, it’s walking into a space with a potential sense of entitlement.”

Schwartz’s parents separated when she was in high school and later divorced. But the making of her film Little White Lie gave the family a way to speak about an issue they had avoided for far too long. Peggy, her mother, said she was unconcerned about people judging her after they view the documentary. She said, “When I first saw the film, it was so clear to me it was Lacey’s story, and it was her right to tell the story. I did what I did. And they can judge me, but nobody else knows what my life was like.”

Schwartz’s biological father, who was a family friend, died when she was 29 but remained close to Lacey’s mother and to Robert, the man she considers her father.

Lacey Schwartz said learning of her background liberated her and even provided a deeper connection to her surname, which she explains, is “a clearly Jewish name that literally means black.”

As she grew in making the film, she hopes in viewing it, audiences have the same response.

“Can you bring your full self through that door or do you feel you have to leave a piece of yourself behind?”

You can watch the video Lacey used to promote and advertise her film a few years back on Kickstarter and then a video where she describes being questioned about her racial identity when she was a child.

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