“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.”
When we meet, last month’s reports about Rachel Dolezal, the American 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.”
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.
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.