It’s a story which many might find far-fetched: a biracial black woman led to believe most of her life that she was a white Jewish woman.
However, this very thing happened to filmmaker Lacey Schwartz, and she is telling her remarkable story in a documentary titled Little White Lie, which is currently making its way through the film festival circuit — most recently the BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia, where she was on hand to talk about the film.
In this narrative, Schwartz uses interviews with her mom Peggy, her dad Robert and other family members and friends along with personal family video and photographs to help shape the story of her quintessential “all Jewish middle-class family” from Woodstock, NY, who for years harbored the secret that Schwartz was conceived through an affair between her mother and Rodney Parker, famed basketball scout from Brooklyn. Parker was also a close family friend.
Looking at earlier pictures of Schwartz, particularly her light brown skin, it is hard to imagine how such a secret could survive scrutiny for so long, particularly in a town like Woodstock, in which racial makeup is 94 percent white and only one-percent black. In the film, Schwartz talked about the curiosity from fellow schoolmates about her real origins. She also recalled an incident at a function at a synagogue, where a Rabbi welcomed her as a visiting Ethiopian Jew.
In spite of the questions and theories, Schwartz said that it was her parents who were quick to dispel any suggestions of ethnicity other than white and Jewish. In fact, for years Schwartz was told that the dark skin was the result of a recessive gene, brought on by a Sicilian grandfather on her father’s side.
In retrospect, Schwartz admits that it all sounds really ridiculous but says that she doesn’t believe her parents were intentionally trying to lie to her.
“What I think was really happening in my family were layers of denial. We define little white lies as family secrets plus denial,” Schwartz told theGrio.
“Family secrets are kind of something everyone sort of knows but doesn’t talk about. Denial is not just lying to other people but lying to yourself. You are literally in denial that something is the way that it is. And I think that is hard for some people to like see and openly acknowledge, but we do it all the time.”
Schwartz said that it took the split of her parents to provide the space for Schwartz to go searching for the truth about who she was. And it was her freshman year in college at Georgetown University, particularly an invitation from other black students into the Black Student Union, when Schwartz began to accept herself as a biracial black woman. That was the easy part. Next was confronting Mom and Dad about their lack of honestly.
In the film, Peggy appeared flippant about the affair and subsequent secret, but she was forthcoming with details about the affair. However, it would take some time in therapy before Schwartz could work up the nerve to have the conversation with her dad Robert, who too was a victim of the deception.
In a heart-churning meeting, Lacey tells Robert that she now identifies as a biracial black woman, to which he painfully snarls, “You think I didn’t know that?” He leaves the tense conversation but later returns in the film for another frank and equally painful conversation about the extent of his knowledge of her true biological origins.
Schwartz said that both parents have seen the film, however, her dad still doesn’t like to talk about it. As for her mother, “Yeah I think the film was kind of cathartic. I feel like she was trapped by her own wrongdoing for some time. And I think you can almost argue that she wanted to get past things but didn’t know how to, and in a sense I helped her get past it and I helped free her from a situation she created,” she said.
In some ways, Schwartz said she too felt like a co-conspirator in the facade, in particular for not confronting her parents about her identity questions. But in spite of it all, she also says that she doesn’t hold anger or resentment. Instead, she says she sees the experience as part of the journey of self-discovery we all personally go on.
“I feel like I lived my life with blinders on. I was in my zone, and I wasn’t looking toward the signs. I was in my space and moving forward in my space,” she said. “And at a certain point, that opened up. And I feel that’s a very common coming of age experience.”
Schwartz said that she is often approached after each screening of the film by viewers, who too have family secrets to spill. In response, she is collecting stories online for a future interactive project.
To contribute a family secret of your own, visit stories.littlewhiteliethefilm.com/submit.