A biracial Jewish filmmaker refuses to shy from thorny questions of identity
As simmering racial tensions in the United States bubble up to the surface in recent years, outreach advocates continue to push for dialogue as a way to build bridges. These include Lacey Schwartz Delgado, whose personal story of navigating her Jewish and African-American identities might make her the perfect person to help others understand the complexity of the issue.
For about a decade, Schwartz Delgado has worked with the outreach organization Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), which advocates for Jews with diverse backgrounds worldwide, where she is currently the director of the group’s New York office.
In 2014, Schwartz Delgado chronicled her own background in a documentary film, “Little White Lie.” Executive produced by Be’chol Lashon, the film is a nuanced exploration of its director’s struggle to unravel a family secret that had a permanent impact on her life: At the age of 18, Schwartz Delgado discovered that her biological father was actually an African-American man with whom her Jewish mother had an extramarital affair.
In the five years since the film’s release, much has changed in America. The country’s first African-American president, Barack Obama, a Democrat, was succeeded by Republican Donald Trump, who won a contentious 2016 election against rival Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s campaign was marked by inflammatory rhetoric. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people,” he said of Mexican immigrants. A year later, protestors from the left and right — with the latter including white nationalists and the alt-right — clashed in Charlottesville, Virginia, resulting in deadly violence.
Schwartz Delgado recognizes that the conversation about race has been “complicated” in recent years. “At the same time we had Obama, we also had Black Lives Matter,” she said. “Out of that, politically, we had Trump.”
Throughout this challenging period, “a lot of people are really dedicated to having difficult yet constructive conversations,” she said. “I am trying to help provide these tools as conversation. The vast majority of people are really interested.”
The film is an illustration of how to navigate the sensitive terrain of race.
“I think our national research [indicates that] people — whites, and people in general — tend not to talk about racism, not [because they] are racist, [but that they] fear saying the wrong things,” said Be’chol Lashon’s director, Diane Tobin. “In our conversations in Jewish communities, they understand race is important to talk about — a cultural competence [that’s] a lifelong goal.”
“We have to engage [people],” Tobin said. “Sometimes, we all make a mistake, but we keep on moving past it. Lacey is very candid in talking about her identity, family, race. I think it’s a really great experience for everyone to experience, a model of how they should live their lives.”
“Little White Lie” follows challenging times in the director’s life.
Growing up in a Jewish family in Woodstock, New York, Schwartz Delgado noticed that she looked different from her parents, Robert and Peggy Schwartz. Her skin was darker, and her hair was curlier. At her bat mitzvah, a synagogue congregant assumed she was an Ethiopian Jew.
Initially, her parents responded to their daughter’s confusion by saying that Robert’s great-grandfather came from Sicily, a cultural crossroads linking Africa, the Middle East and Europe. As she went on to high school and college, she began to question this explanation — especially after her college choice, Georgetown, listed her among the African-American students in her first-year class. At age 18, after her parents divorced, she found out the truth: her mother Peggy had had a romantic relationship with an African-American man, Rodney Parker, who was Lacey’s biological father.