Meet the black woman raised to believe she was white
“Throughout my life, people have asked me why I look the way I do,” says Lacey Schwartz. “I would tell them that my parents were white, which was true. I wasn’t pretending to be something I wasn’t. I grew up being told, and believing, that I was the nice, white, Jewish daughter of two nice, white, Jewish parents.”
But Schwartz, a 38-year-old film-maker, has brown skin, curly hair and full lips. It was only when she was 18 that her mother admitted the truth: that she had had an affair with a friend and former colleague who was black. And that, in all likelihood, he was Lacey’s biological father.
The revelation not only shook her relationship with her mother to the core, but also led Schwartz to question everything she had believed about who she was, and eventually inspired her to make a documentary about the experience, called Little White Lie.
“I started out wanting to make a film about being black and Jewish, because I was really struggling with my dual identity,” she says. “But I was living in a racial closet at the time that was all about my family secret. So I decided to use the film as a way to fully uncover the secret.”
civil rights campaigner who made headlines around the world by claiming that, despite being white, she “identifies as black”, are still to break. But Schwartz tells me she believes that racial identity is “fluid and contextual”.
“I think it can change depending on where you are and who you’re around,” she says. The film shows Schwartz and two black female friends discussing the “one drop rule”: the idea that if a person has even the smallest amount of black heritage, they are black. “Being bi-racial, mixed race, is a category of being black, not a category of being white,” Schwartz believes. “It’s an inclusive thing.”
We meet in New York’s SoHo on a sunny afternoon. Having spent most of her adult life in the city, Schwartz now lives in New Jersey with her lawyer husband, Antonio Delgado, and their 18-month-old twins.
Schwartz describes her own childhood, in the countryside near Woodstock in upstate New York, as “solid, comfortable, loving”. Her father, Robert, was an accountant, and her mother, Peggy, owned a wine shop.
Although Lacey was an only child, she was close to her numerous aunts, uncles and cousins. “I came from a long line of New York Jews, the great-granddaughter of Eastern European immigrants,” she says. “We went to the synagogue, bar mitzvahs, Hebrew school. My family knew who they were, and they defined who I was.”
Leafy, middle-class Woodstock was a liberal town but it was also very white. Schwartz has a vivid memory of being five and a little blond boy in her all-white kindergarten class asking her to show him the colour of her gums. “It was the first time I remember feeling different,” she recalls. “I already knew I didn’t look like the other kids at school, but it was embarrassing to be singled out, and it made me feel ugly.”
Afterwards, Schwartz asked her parents why she looked different, and her father showed her a picture of his great-grandfather, a brooding, Moorish-looking Sicilian, and told her that she must take after him.
And that, she says, simply became the accepted story. “You know how things are within families,” she shrugs. “You know what you know, and you reinforce that truth all the time. If you looked too closely at it, it didn’t make any sense. So we didn’t look at it.”
But others sometimes took a peek; new friends would often ask if she was adopted, while established friends silently accepted the story they’d been told. One old friend admits she “knew Lacey looked black, but that she wasn’t”.
A family friend refers to the issue as “the 600lb gorilla in the room”, which would occasionally beat its chest. Aged 11, Schwartz wrote in her diary that she wished she had lighter skin, and that she hated her curly hair.
When she was 13, a member of the synagogue told her that it was “so nice to have an Ethiopian Jew in our presence”. And at high school, “The black kids would stare at me and ask, ‘What are you?’ I’d tell them I was white. But I was in denial too; I had my blinkers on.”
In Lacey’s mid-teens, Robert and Peggy’s marriage began to unravel.
“Their divorce was really hard; it completely shook my world,” Schwartz says. She believes that her mother’s affair was a factor in the break-up – although as she discovered while making the film, it wasn’t something her parents had ever openly discussed.
Her father, she later found out, suspected that something had happened but had only said so once, telling Peggy they should “put it behind them and move on” – he preferred to keep his blinkers on, too.
“I don’t think affairs are necessarily the cause of break-ups, they’re usually symptoms,” says Schwartz. “Relationships are complicated – why did my mother have an affair in the first place?”
Their divorce had a major impact on her. “My family had been this bubble, this supposedly perfect unit, so there was no incentive for me to question it. But when my parents split up, it made me question everything: who I was, what I had come from, who my parents were.”
She knew she wasn’t adopted: there were photographs of her mother pregnant and stories about her birth. “There are only so many other options. I definitely started questioning my paternity,” she says. She began to feel that there was something major her parents weren’t telling her, but had no idea how to talk to them about it.
When, at 16, she started dating her high-school boyfriend Matt, who was himself mixed race. People would ask if they were brother and sister, fuelling her doubts about her parents’ story.
“Matt would sit me down with my family photo albums and be like, ‘Let’s talk about it,’” she recalls. “I told him my parents were splitting up, that I couldn’t deal with it just now. I think, deep down, I knew that there was a truth I wanted to find, but I wasn’t admitting it to myself.”
For Schwartz, the first big turning point was when she applied to Georgetown University in Washington, DC. On her application form, she left every box in the “ethnicity” section unchecked. “I’d only ever considered myself Caucasian; now, I wasn’t entirely sure any more. I didn’t know what to say, so I simply left it blank.”
However, she had submitted a photograph as part of the application, and on the basis of that, was admitted as a black student. It was an administrative “error” that Schwartz decided to run with. “The moment that Georgetown said, ‘You’re black,’ they gave me the permission to start entertaining the idea of it myself,” she says.
During the first year of college, Schwartz immersed herself in the university’s black community. “I was ready to try on a new identity,” she says. “My black friends just saw me as another black person. And my dark skin that I had always worried about was light skin to them. For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged. I just knew that being black was who I was.”
Schwartz attended meetings of the Black Student Alliance, and became conscious of race in a way she never had been before. “University was ‘Race 101’ ,” she recounts in the film. “It was a crash course in race for a white person. Most white people don’t go through life thinking about their whiteness, but black people think about race all the time. I learnt so much, including the fact that my black friends felt they had to work so much harder to prove their success.”
In her first year of college, she began seeing a (white, female, non-Jewish) therapist, who helped her work through how she might open a conversation with her parents. So, when she went home for the summer, Schwartz asked her mother outright, “Why do I look the way I look? Why has nobody ever talked to me about it? How come nobody saw I was different?”
Her mother didn’t want to talk about it and tried to avoid the subject. “I was scared,” admits Peggy in the film. “My reaction was: ‘Please make her be quiet, make her stop.’
”But Schwartz pressed on, until Peggy eventually admitted the truth: she’d had an affair with a man named Rodney Parker, who was a famed basketball scout in New York City – and who had sat at the Schwartz family’s dinner table many times. There was “a good chance” that he was her father.
“I didn’t know what to think,” says Schwartz. “There was a large part of me that was relieved that I finally knew the truth. But my mom had been lying to me and to everyone else my entire life. I was so angry I could barely speak to her.”
In the wake of her parents’ divorce, she wasn’t speaking regularly to Robert, either. “I just couldn’t wait to get back to college,” she admits. It took a long time, but Schwartz finally rebuilt her relationship with Peggy, who features prominently in the film. “A great deal of acceptance has come through making this film,” says Schwartz.
It wasn’t a smooth process. In a startling moment, Peggy tells her daughter on camera that if the man she’d had an affair with had been white, none of this would ever have come up as an issue.
“I was very conscious about putting that statement out there and just letting it sit,” says Schwartz, with an eyebrow raised. “It makes me think, ‘Well, that’s true.’ It also makes me think, ‘Well, where’s the responsibility in that?’”
Peggy admits to camera that she initially had reservations about being in the film. “But she ended up being the most open to doing it.
I think she felt the most guilty, and the most obligated to participate,” says Schwartz. Robert, however, was not such an easy participant; the tense, awkward footage of Schwartz tackling the subject of her paternity with him for the first time is painful to watch. He calls Peggy’s affair “the ultimate betrayal”.
Perhaps surprisingly, Schwartz did not broach the subject with him before the on-camera conversation. “My guess would be that he knew what I was going to talk to him about, but we didn’t discuss it in advance,” she says.
When Schwartz moved to New York at the age of 23 to pursue her dream of working in film, she also decided it was time to get to know her biological father. According to Peggy, Parker had suggested many times that Lacey was his child. But Peggy had insisted to him that Robert was her father – and not just biologically: he was the one who raised her, who took her to school each day.
Parker was happy to get to know her better too, but Schwartz admits, with clear-eyed honesty, she didn’t feel a connection. “For me, the simple fact of biology just didn’t create a bond,” she says.
He had six other children and Schwartz spent time with her half-sister Kristen. “But I didn’t feel a connection, to her or to Rodney,” she says.
Shortly before Schwartz’s 30th birthday, Parker died. At his funeral, she was seated on the front row, and was announced during the service as one of his children, which she found odd and uncomfortable. “For some people, that biological link is a huge thing,” she says. “It’s similar with adoption; some people feel very connected to their birth family. Others don’t.”
Today, says Schwartz, her relationship with Robert is “solid”. When she got married in 2011, both Robert and Peggy walked her down the aisle. And her mother, to whom she is close once more, regularly looks after her twins, whose birth also brought home to Schwartz the importance of having unearthed the secret that had festered for decades.
“And now that the film is done, my mother loves it,” she says. “She feels it has helped her to stop lying and really learn how to live an honest life.”