“I was living in a racial closet”: Black filmmaker Lacey Schwartz on growing up white
A photo of Lacey Schwartz and her mother, in “Little White Lie” (Credit: PBS)
Schwartz talks to Salon about race, privilege, family secrets and her new PBS documentary “Little White Lie”
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…
…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…
…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…
Read the entire interview here.