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Talking with Filmmaker Lacey Schwartz About the Crux of Her Identity

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This article is featured in the July edition of The Slice, a monthly digest created in partnership with Tablet Magazine that offers a thought-provoking take on Jewish ideas and stories. 

When Lacey Schwartz was in her late 20s, she started work on Little White Lie. The documentary, which took eight years to complete and debuted on PBS this spring, follows her effort to uncover a family secret—why she looked so different and so much darker than her white, Jewish relatives. Her parents always explained away the differences, and while growing up in the small town of Woodstock, New York, Schwartz accepted those explanations.

When she got to college, however, everything changed.

At Georgetown, Schwartz awoke to the fact that she’s bi-racial and that the man she knew as “daddy” was not her biological father. We spoke with Schwartz about the personal journey her film documents, about what it means to her to be black and Jewish, and about the importance of Jews’ accepting the diversity within their own community.

In college, you finally were allowed to embrace the black part of you. More than that, it seemed like you had to choose whether you were white or black. Was that so?

No, I would not describe it that way. I don’t think I had to choose.  I was at a point when I was just trying to really figure out why I looked the way I did.

In terms of my relationship to the different communities in college, I did feel like Jewish students constantly asked me how I could be Jewish and expressed surprise that I was. Jewishness was something I still felt connected to, but I felt outside of the actual community.

In college, in that black community, I wasn’t questioned about being Jewish. I felt my black friends understood all the different ways you could be black and the diversity that makes up the black community. I didn’t feel that the Jewish community embraced its own diversity in the same way.

The film is about how I had to uncover my family’s secrets to learn to live with my dual identity. It’s not about being out in the world. It’s not about me seeking society’s acceptance. It’s about having this conversation with my family, and from there, I can go out and be more comfortable with who I am. That’s the process. That’s the journey.

How do you identify yourself now?

As bi-racial. For me, that’s a category of being black. And that’s for me–I’m not defining it for other people.

In the film you talk about “passing” as white. How do you respond to people who say, “Well, Jews aren’t white. They’re a minority.”

That Jews are sometimes a minority in certain spaces doesn’t mean they don’t have a racial connection. Race is a social construct and identity is fluid so there may have been a time where Jews were not looked at as white, but that is not how it is now for all Jews. There are some white Jews and there are some non-white Jews. There’s an entire book about it, How Jews Became White Folks. Just because you’re Jewish doesn’t mean you’re not white.

I think it is important that we talk about race within the Jewish community as well as the rest of society. In particular, we have to talk more about whiteness and what whiteness really is. Whiteness can be looked at as almost the absence of having a race.

It‘s really important that the Jewish community also owns its own diversity, and the conversation that says “we’re not white” ignores that diversity. You can be many different things and Jewish. It’s about the ability to see other peoples’ experiences. We need to create spaces in the Jewish community where you don’t have to look one way to be Jewish. The more we can create spaces where we can destigmatize specificities around peoples’ identities, the better. Let people be who they are. Let them embrace it.

I grew up in a Jewish space where at my elementary school I was the only Jewish kid; I know what people mean when they say that they feel like they are a minority as a Jewish person. But I also know the experience of being black in America. And it’s just not the same. I was a minority and I definitely felt it, but it’s not the same as being black where you wear it every day, all the time.

There’s a scene in the film in which you ask a cousin, a Jewish man, “Do you think of me as black?” He responds, “What do those words even mean?” And so I put it to you: what does that mean to be thought of as black?

For me, it’s about what it is to be a person of color. It’s about having consciousness about it. I grew up in a space where we didn’t talk about race. I didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about it, but I was very aware of my own difference, how we’re racialized.  It’s about that shared experience, the history, the kind of connection, of how you understand each other.

One thing that I so admired in your film is the candor with which you and your relatives and family friends discuss your blackness. That candor seems to be born of love.

The film was a lot about denial and what you choose to talk about and not talk about. For me it was about having those conversations so I could live my life openly and honestly and move forward, past my family secret. I am grateful to my family for going through that process with me.

What does it mean to you to be thought of as Jewish? Or, to be Jewish?

It’s about a family connection. It’s a spiritual, religious connection where I pick and choose my own path. I’m not super religious and I don’t conform to any denomination.

There’s a poignant scene with your dad in which you first tell him that think of yourself as black. His reaction is, “Yes, I know. I see what you read, what music you listen to,” and the implication is that what we consume defines us.

I don’t think that what we consume defines us, in general. There are so many stereotypes around those things—people say, “This kind of person should do this thing and that kind of person should do that thing.” Every person is different. There are black kids that listen to punk music and white kids that listen to hip hop.

What I think is interesting about that scene is that so many people look at these things differently. I did a showing the other day at a university, and one person in the audience raised his hand and said, “Your dad, he just really saw you and loved you. Did you feel the same way?” And I said, “I don’t think what I think matters. I created the film so that people who felt differently could have meaningful conversations.”

Then, a person two seats down raised his hand and said, “I see it differently. I see him as rejecting you and trivializing you and not seeing you for how you are.” So I said, “See—the two of you should talk to each other about why you are viewing that scene differently.”

Turns out they were neighbors and friends, and they said they would definitely discuss it. That is my goal with the film—for people to use it to talk about issues they aren’t necessarily discussing with people who think differently than they do. Those conversations need to happen in order for real change to happen.

People are not aware of how other people can have very different experiences than they do—especially across race. I was just reading Elle magazine in which a white woman I know wrote a summer reading list of all black authors, and she talked about how the last few months have shown us how different people see things. The black community is like, “Oh, this is business as usual,” because they know that the racism exists and so many white people, liberals in particular, are horrified and surprised. There’s a disconnect.

The film includes scenes from Passover seders, from your bat mitzvah. Did finding out that you were bi-racial change how you feel about Judaism? Or your engagement with it?

No. My connection to being Jewish is really my connection to my family. It didn’t make me question if I want to go home for holidays, for instance.

If anything, it just raised the question: how can I be Jewish and something else? Because I wasn’t raised in a space where Jewish diversity was embraced.

Now it raises questions of what I want to bring to my family and what I want Judaism to look like for my children. You grow up in one space, but unless you marry someone who looks exactly like you, you usually ask those questions. I think that even when you do marry someone from the same background, you still frequently ask yourself, “What resonates with me?” and from how you were raised, you pick and choose what you want to continue to do with your new family.

How will you broach questions of identity with your boys, when the time comes?

For me, it is important to raise kids to be confident, to know who they are all around, but not to be naïve about the world they live in. I want my kids to understand all the different sides of who they are, and I want to raise them to feel confident and comfortable. I have two young boys, twins, who are almost two, and they will go out into the world and be identified as black men. I think any parent who doesn’t raise their young black men to know how to navigate the world they live in is making a mistake because, at least for now, there’s too much possibility of violence.

Follow Little White Lie on Twitter @lwlfilm.

For more information about the film, go to www.littlewhiteliethefilm.com.

To get a free download of the film, click here.