Shades of Gray (American Jewish Life Magazine)
The problem was the boxes on her college application. The ones where you check white or black. Lacey Schwartz didn’t know which to check, so she sent a picture instead, which led the school administrators to enroll her as a black student, one who inexplicably had two white Jewish parents. That’s how she made it 18 years before blowing the lid off the family secret: That her mother had an affair with a black man, that she was the product of their union.
In a certain sense, the boxes still haunt a 30-year-old Lacey – now a Harvard-educated lawyer and successful film producer in New York City. American culture seeks to compartmentalize people, she tells me during a discussion of her work-in-progress documentary about black Jews in America.
Before meeting her, I had loaded the trailer for her film “Outside the Box” onto my computer and watched a montage of black Jews interspersed with footage of Lacey, whose personal story narrates the movie. “Black Jews are caught between two often conflicting worlds,” a caption states. On camera, a black man describes the challenge of explaining his religion: “Jewish means white,” he declares.
All her life, Lacey’s race has similarly conferred insider or outsider status on her. Tonight, at one of her favorite wine bars in the East Village, I take in her perfectly chic, downtown look, complete with gold earrings and a fur vest, as she assesses a predominantly white crowd. But she feels like an outsider.
Though finely attuned to the color of her skin, Lacey Schwartz – Schwartz, she reiterates – was raised in ignorant bliss in Woodstock, N.Y. The only child of her fair-skinned parents, she describes a sort of upbringing as iconic as any other American Jewish kid raised during the 1980s, complete with Hebrew school, a bat mitzvah, youth group, even her parents’ separation at age 15. “I was a nice Jewish girl in upstate New York,”? she says, lapsing into a kind of East Coast Jewish whine.
Remarkably, no one in her family discussed Lacey’s dark skin and distinctively curly hair, nor did they acknowledge she was biracial. “People go day to day, and don’t talk about things” she says, knowing well from experience.
But while Lacey’s family ignored the obvious, not everyone else did. When she was five, a boy in the nursery school playground insisted on checking the color of her gums to determine whether she was white or black. As a teen, black girls ostracized her. Whenever people questioned her identity, “I always said I was Jewish,” she says. Looking back, Lacey identifies herself as an interloper in a game of “which one of these things doesn’t belong.”
After Lacey’s first year of college at Georgetown University, however, she confronted reality – and her mother. “Do you ever wonder why I look the way I do?” she asked. For two weeks, her mother stalled. Finally Lacey demanded: “Is Daddy my real father?” She says she was more relieved to know the truth than actually shocked.
Her experience at Georgetown until that point was influential as she questioned her race. Her registration papers there labeled her a “black/Hispanic origins”? student. And Lacey joined the black theater group and student association, fell in step with the black students’ clique, and dated black and biracial men.
Seemingly overnight, she had retreated from the Jewish community she grew up in. Her upbringing wasn’t particularly religious anyway, and the myopic view of some Jews she met around that time offended her. In law school in particular, colleagues didn’t hide their shock when they learned she was black and Jewish, and “How could that be?”?
In what would become an ongoing process, Lacey balanced multiple worlds: her many different friends, her white Jewish family, and the strong sense of comfort she felt as a black woman – more so than a white one. “It is strange for me to be around your family, because they are all white,” a black boyfriend exclaimed once after meeting her relatives. “You don’t think I understand that and feel that way, too? But they are my family,”? she replied.
But if there is one goal in Lacey’s immediate future, it is talking to her dad. Not her biological one, but the one who raised her. To this day, she has never discussed with him the fact that he is not her biological father.
Initially, she says she wasn’t ready to deal with the fallout. And so, besides her film’s compelling footage (which earned a 2006 Tribeca All Access Creative Promise Award), Lacey’s desire is twofold: to tell the untold story of black Jews in America, and to plumb the nature of her own identity.
The latter is the harder of the two. Specifically, the “emotional work” is more challenging even than taping intimate therapy sessions she attends with her mother. But she is preparing to “come out of the closet”? with her family, and her father.
Georgetown may have guessed 12 years ago based on a snapshot. But Lacey wants out of the box.