RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
"Little White Lie" is a new documentary about family secrets and cultural identity.
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LACEY SCHWARTZ: I grew up in a world with synagogue, Hebrew school, bar mitzvahs. My family knew who they were, and they defined who I was. So it never occurred to me that I was passing. I actually grew up believing I was white.
MONTAGNE: That is Lacey Schwartz. She grew up in Woodstock, N.Y. Sometimes she questioned why her deeper skin tone and curly hair and didn't look like others in her family. Her parents are white and Jewish and explained that Lacey inherited her looks from a Sicilian great-grandfather with darker features and coarse hair. It was plausible. It was what they believed. And as NPR special correspondent Michele Norris explains, it just wasn't true. She spoke with Lacey Schwartz and her mother, Peggy Schwartz.
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: The film "Little White Lie" focuses on a secret that changes Lacey's life. The man she thought was her father actually wasn't. Lacey's mother had carried on a long-standing affair that began even before she was married, an affair with a black man named Rodney Parker. He was actually Lacey's biological father. Even before she learned the secret, Lacey wondered why she looked so different. The explanation, she said, didn't always make sense.
L. SCHWARTZ: I thought about, obviously, these kind of things a lot. Are there other people who are white and Jewish and have hair like mine? There are. So it - you know, as a child and even as an adolescent, I really struggled with those things 'cause I thought, well, look at that person, you know? I'm not that much darker than them. I'm not that dark, you know? Or are my lips really that much fuller? Or is my hair that much curlier? So when you take all of the individual features separately, it was easier to say, well, I could be from my family - or look at that person, or look at that person, or look at that person. When you put it all together, though, which happened later in my teens, that was when it didn't really add up. But when I was younger...
NORRIS: But you were thinking about it pretty early. You show a picture from a diary, a Judy Blume...
L. SCHWARTZ: Yeah.
NORRIS: ....Diary. And it says, if I could change anything about myself, what would it be? I don't know if I got the question right...
L. SCHWARTZ: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
NORRIS: ...But I remember in your handwriting - at that age your handwriting is always very dramatic and lots of curlicues - you wrote, I would ask for lighter skin.
L. SCHWARTZ: Yeah.
NORRIS: Who was that little girl? What was she wishing?
L. SCHWARTZ: You know, I - it's funny because when I, obviously, in doing this film, I really comb through the archives and went back to - I knew that there was insecurity, and I knew there was insecurity about difference. But when I even saw that, you know, I didn't remember writing that, you know? I didn't. I do remember feeling the way I felt and feeling kind of like I wanted to conform to what I perceived to be the norms, you know, of beauty at that time - straight hair, lighter skin, blonder, if possible. But who that little girl was is she was just somebody who was, I think, like lots of little girls who are aware of their difference and feel insecure about it and for a variety of different reasons aren't really put in a position to totally embrace and love who they are.
NORRIS: Peggy, when you kept the secret for so many years, even during a period where Lacey's biological father had come and sat at the family table and everyone had met him - keeping the secret for so many years, what was it that motivated you to hold onto that? What were you afraid of?
PEGGY SCHWARTZ: I was afraid of having the life as we know it end - the family life. I was afraid of what it would do to my husband. I mean, even - I mean, obviously I had an affair, but I was in some ways - not to pat myself on the back - I was being considerate of him. So I didn't want this all to come out. Was that foolish? It was foolish.
NORRIS: When Lacey first told you she was interested in making this film, did you try to talk her out of it? Or...
P. SCHWARTZ: No. I never tried to talk her out of it. And once I knew it was happening, there was just no choice. And I speak a lot about the fact that I really did embrace it for Lacey's sake and for my own sake. It was OK. It...
NORRIS: What did it do for you?
P. SCHWARTZ: It freed me. It freed me. Now, one of the things I learned from Lacey making this movie - in the beginning, I had a little trouble understanding the difference between lie and denial, which Lacey talks about living lies and living in denial.
NORRIS: What's the difference?
P. SCHWARTZ: The movie for me is that I wasn't lying. I just was in denial. I wasn't paying attention, and I was going about my day-to-day life and not really acknowledging that there was not a 100 percent chance, but a really good chance that Lacey's father was not...
NORRIS: Not your husband.
P. SCHWARTZ: ...My ex-husband. And that really had nothing to do with race. It just was an issue about paternity.
NORRIS: When Lacey Schwartz left the largely white enclave of Woodstock to go to college, she was unsure about her racial identity. Georgetown University made the decision for her. Lacey was accepted as an African-American student based on the photo she included with her application, even though she hadn't checked a box marking her race. And for the first time, while away from home and family, she found herself in a circle of black friends.
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L. SCHWARTZ: As it turned out, hanging out with black people put a lot of my insecurities to rest. The dark skin I always worried about was light skin to them, and my bad hair became good hair. My black friends looked at me and saw another black person. Feeling like an outsider was something they could relate to. For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged. And somehow I just knew that black was who I was.
NORRIS: The film goes on to chronicle a series of conversations, sometimes painful confrontations, with her mother, friends, schoolmates and family as Lacey embraces the truth about her real father and what it means for her as a woman who now identifies as a being black when she once thought of herself as white. It's clear sitting across from mother and daughter, together in our studio, the two have now made peace with the truth, and what it means for the next generation - Lacey's children, Peggy's grandsons.
P. SCHWARTZ: You know, I have to say, I don't really think of the bigger picture right now. All I see is these two cute, little, loving human beings. I do realize that they are - they will be black men someday, please God. I mean, in all honesty, I just look at them as little babies, but I do have that in the back of my mind that these two people will be black men. And what will the world be like for them?
MONTAGNE: That's Peggy Schwartz along with her daughter, filmmaker Lacey Schwartz. They spoke with NPR's Michele Norris. "Little White Lie" airs tonight on the PBS program "Independent Lens." This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
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And I'm David Greene.
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