*For all Lacey Schwartz knew, she was white. At least that’s what she had been told. She grew up in Woodstock, N.Y., a predominantly white neighborhood, with her Jewish parents, Peggy and Robert Schwartz. But what she came to know over time was that her biological father was actually black.
Schwartz’s story isn’t one about “passing” for white, a longstanding issue in the African-American culture. She was actually raised to believe she was.
In her documentary, “Little White Lie,” which is airing on PBS as part of its Independent Lens series, Schwartz reveals her journey on coming to terms with her biracial identity and confronting her parents about the family secret.
It has been proven time and again that you can’t determine someone’s racial identity just by looking at them, but as a child, Schwartz’s light-brown skin and curly hair raised brows and sparked comments from people outside her immediate family circle: At her bat mitzvah, a woman from the synagogue mistook Lacey for an Ethiopian Jew.
When she questioned her parents, her father showed her a portrait of her Sicilian great-grandfather, whose darker skin appeased the situation and seemed to be a sufficient explanation for her and those around her…at least for a time.
“To me, one of the big themes of my story and the film is about the incredible power of denial,” said Schwartz, 38, speaking from her home in Montclair, N.J., where she lives with her husband and 18-month-old twin boys. “And one of the things I was very interested in looking at is what I consider to be the anatomy of denial.”
A denial that enabled her parents to convince themselves that the great-grandfather story was true. But Schwartz couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something deeper. In high school, which offered a more diverse population, she got stares from black girls and didn’t understand why. And her parent’s divorce, right before she turned 16, only led to more unanswered questions.
“When my parents split, it was very earth-shattering for me, but at the same time very eye-opening,” Schwartz said. “A few things happened that weren’t adding up anymore,” she said, noting that until then, “we could ignore them because we had this nice, happy, nuclear family. And when that broke up, it made me question a lot of things.”
After applying to Georgetown University, Schwartz began searching for answers. Although she had not checked a box next to a racial preference on the application, the university accepted her as an African American based on a photo that accompanied the application.
Feeling more encourage to explore her identity, Schwartz started going to Black Student Alliance meetings, where she was embraced immediately. It was here that she found a place accepting of her and her differences.
Schwartz became emboldened by her experiences on-campus, and confronted her mother, who finally admitted to having had an affair with an African-American friend named Rodney Parker.
“I realized I was never going to integrate my identities until I uncovered my family secrets,” Schwartz said. “It’s relatively common that so much of our identities are caught up in our family stuff, and that can hold us back.”
She said the film was her way of providing a blueprint for others about “how to have those difficult but important conversations that allow you to move forward with your life.”
Find out how this “family secret” has affected this family’s life and what happened when Lacey confronted the man she thought was her father all this time at The Root.