“I was living in a racial closet”: Black filmmaker Lacey Schwartz on growing up white
For the first 18 years of her life Lacey Schwartz knew she was white. With her dark skin, curly hair and full lips, she was a nice Jewish girl from Woodstock, New York. And then — she wasn’t.
Twenty years ago, Schwartz applied to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and — even though she didn’t tick a box giving her racial identity — she was admitted as a black student. “I know some people looked at that situation and they think, ‘Why weren’t you outraged? Why wouldn’t you protest it?’” Schwartz, 38, said. But for the filmmaker, it was an opportunity to open herself up to something that deep down had been niggling her for most of her life, a question that became the the heart of her documentary “Little White Lie,” which airs Monday on PBS.
Ever since she was 5 years old, when a classmate demanded that she show him her gums, Schwartz knew she looked a bit different from everyone else in her very white town. But her parents, Peggy and Robert Schwartz, had an answer for that — a photo in their family album of her paternal ancestor, a dark-skinned Sicilian Jew. The real answer was far less complicated, buried underneath a lifetime of secrets and lies that helped spell the end of her parents’ marriage. (Spoiler alert: Schwartz is the result of an affair her mom had with an African-American family friend. She demanded answers from her mother when she was 18, but didn’t talk to her father about it until her mid-30s when she made the film.)
In “Little White Lie,” Schwartz confronts her family, exposing the secret and revealing how she has spent her adult years straddling two racial identities. We talked to Schwartz about ditching law for filmmaking and what it’s like to be black and white in America.
What made you want to become a filmmaker?
When I was in law school I started thinking about the issues that I wanted to work on and how film was an effective way to speak about the issues I cared about.
What sort of things are we talking about?
At the time it was one thing. Now it’s another. I mean it very broadly. It was more that I felt it was an effective medium to talk about different subjects.
Why did you make “Little White Lie”?
I started making this film in a period of time when I considered I was living in a racial closet, where I was identifying out and about in my day-to-day life as being black-biracial. But when I went home, I wasn’t. I wasn’t talking about that at all. I felt very much like my identities were compartmentalized. Initially I was going to do a film on more broadly looking at being black and Jewish, and how different people were dealing with managing their dual identities — including my own story, but really focusing on the identity piece of it. But when I started digging into that, I realized I was never going to be able to integrate my identities until I uncovered my family secret; that so frequently family secrets are such a big part of people’s identity. That was when I decided to use the film as a way to have those conversations for the first time, and really looked at it as a modeling process of having difficult conversations. How it’s difficult but worthwhile.
When you decided, OK, I’m going to do this film, I’m going to tackle my family secret, and you posed the idea to your parents, were they initially receptive?
The way I approached it is I decided I was going to do the film and it wasn’t like I went to anybody asking for permission. I decided I was going to do the film that I was going to do, but then I would get everybody and ask for their participation. Going to them and saying, “I understand if you don’t want to participate, but I’d like to ask you to do so.” I don’t think there weren’t moments that were tough, but everyone in my family and my parents participated, which I was very appreciative of.
Did they ever get to the point where they didn’t notice the camera or were they just comfortable with it being there?
I don’t know that anybody ever doesn’t notice that the camera’s there. Certainly they got used to it. The combination of working with this for so long, and having the camera there so frequently, partnered with the fact that it was really with one person that they got to know and it wasn’t with a whole crew, helped.
Your story is like “The Emperor’s New Clothes” because it seems so obvious that you’re black, and yet everyone was saying that you were white. Growing up, when you looked at yourself in the mirror, did you ever have an inkling? Absolutely. I saw my difference. It’s so crazy for me to find a picture of me when I was a kid and remember that I was so insecure about my hair and my skin and all those things. I definitely felt self-conscious of not being like everybody else that was around me.
And you had no sense that there was a secret up until your parents’ divorce when you were 16?
I personally think a huge theme of my story in the film is the theme of denial. To me it’s like looking at the anatomy of denial. It’s like you said with “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” One of the things that I was interested in looking at is how everybody had their own timeline of denial. Even me. Even though it was learned behavior. To say I had no idea? I actually don’t look at things as black and white as that. I think when it comes to denial it’s really about creating your own reality and a lot of times in instances before you — quote, unquote — lie to other people, you frequently lie to yourself first. You’re the first person you’re really convincing of something.
I really do think that [first] it’s that you convince yourself of what you want to believe. And then the second stage of that is deep down you know the truth but you’re not willing to admit it to yourself, which for me was from the time when my parents broke up when I was 16 until I came home from my freshman year at college and I had that conversation with my mom. The third stage is the stage where you actually know the truth, you’re admitting it to yourself, you’re just not talking to other people about it.
Did I have no idea? In hindsight I think deep, deep down I kind of knew the truth — I kind of admitted that to myself — but I really didn’t.
I felt sorry for your mom because I felt how scared she must have been to carry this secret for so long. At the beginning of the film you seem to be quite upset with her. Have you got to a point where you can understand her as a woman, where you can see her perspective?
It’s so fascinating to see how different people react so differently to my parents. Some people really feel bad for my mother. Some people feel bad for my dad. That being said, yeah, in the end one of the things that really drove me is to understand. My mother was and is such an amazing mother and so dedicated to me in so many ways and then at the same time she was so selfish in so many ways. So it was such a dichotomy to me that I did want to understand it.
Fundamentally when I started out on this project, my goal was to understand everybody in the story — including myself — better. Not judge, but to understand it. Not excuse it, but understand it as best I could.
Your dad seemed really reluctant to talk about your secret. You had to push and pry with him.
Yeah, that’s how he is. He is reluctant to talk about these things.
What is it? Is it just his personality? Is it too painful for him?
Since you made the film is your relationship with your parents better?
Definitely. A thousand percent.
For you, what does it mean to be black?
I think it’s twofold. Part of it is about my own consciousness about being a person of color and being of the world and seeing things. I lived so much of my life having the outlook and thinking that I was white and being somewhat oblivious to the rest of the world, and so I think for me, it’s about gaining that consciousness of difference and really actually recognizing how other people see me.
Part of it’s also being part of the community and the connection. It’s shared experiences on a variety of different levels. When I got to college, that connection, realizing that — even though I hadn’t grown up identifying as being black — there were ways in which I really felt connected to being part of a community.
It’s a lot about the idea of normative beauty and things like that. It’s expanding our ideas of what are the norms. There are lots of examples where norms are reinforced all over the place and I grew up not really knowing how to name them but feeling outside of them.
Forgive the analogy but it’s almost like the story of the ugly duckling and how the duckling felt so ugly around the other ducklings until it discovered it was a swan.
Totally. I really appreciate how you’re using the fables. But I think you’re right. I never really thought about that but I totally connect to “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” I totally connect to the ugly duckling one.
Just to be clear, I do describe myself as mixed race. I just personally look at that as a category of being black. And I don’t think that everybody in the United States looks at it that way. I don’t do research so I don’t know the numbers on it.
But, for example, President Obama calls himself black. Halle Berry calls herself black. Alicia Keys calls herself black. They all have one white parent. In the film you discuss the one drop rule (that one drop of black blood makes you black) and that’s been a given for generations, but now in recent years, I feel younger Americans don’t want to pick one race over the other. You are adopting both black and biracial. Why did you choose those particular labels?
For me, the reason I identify as being black, what I’m really saying is that I identify as being a person of color. Being biracial for me is not a category of being white because it’s kind of like asking the question, what is whiteness? And whiteness has always been defined as the opposite of otherness. And I really do connect to being a person of color and what that means within the black community in the United States. I think that if you look outside to other cultures it may not be defined as blackness but it is nonetheless described as otherness.
There are a lot of people who I know are biracial from other places [who] still connect with that idea, even if they give it a different name. For instance, I showed my film in Trinidad and actually saw a friend there who was British and Trinidadian and grew up in the U.K., and I think people there did connect to my story. It’s a film about navigating different identities. Even if you use different terms it doesn’t mean that it’s not conceptually similar and I think when you’re talking about the president and Alicia Keys you’re talking about people who came up in industries, who in certain ways felt like things were dichotomized to a certain degree and then you have some people who feel like, “I don’t fit into those dichotomies.”
The next project we’re working on is about African-American performers during the civil rights movement and how they were activists both on and off the stage and screen. As part of this project I’ve had conversations with actors and actresses about image and black beauty, and I think people do put you in boxes in a certain way. So then the connection I think you feel is with people who get what that experience is. It’s not like you’re just ghettoizing yourself. It’s that you’re connecting to other people who get the nuances of your experience.
So what do you want people to get from “Little White Lie”?
I want them to use the film as a tool. It’s not that I want them to take away any specific approach to identity or family or anything like that or what’s right or wrong. I just want them to be able to open their mind and engage their own stories and other people’s stories.