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'Little White Lie' traces one woman's quest to discover her true biracial identity

"Little White Lie" director Lacey Schwartz as a child.
Courtesy Lacey Schwartz
"Little White Lie" director Lacey Schwartz with her mother.
Courtesy Lacey Schwartz
"Little White Lie" director Lacey Schwartz as a teenager.
Courtesy Lacey Schwartz

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Imagine growing up and developing an identity that you soon realize is shrouded in family secrets. 

That’s exactly what happened to filmmaker Lacey Schwartz. She traces her journey of self-discovery in the documentary "Little White Lie," airing tonight on PBS.

Schwartz was born to a middle-class New York Jewish family, and had lived her childhood and adolescence believing she was white. Her mother had explained that her darker complexion came from her Sicilian grandfather. 

There were times when she questioned her identity, but it wasn’t until college when she learned that her suspicions were true.

Through the course of her research Schwartz learned that her biological father was actually a black man with whom her mother had an affair. 

Schwartz spoke with The Frame host John Horn about her decision to pursue her story via film, how she came to understand her ethnicity and what she plans on teaching her kids about race and identity. 

Interview Highlights:

When did you decide that you wanted to explore your story through film?

I started this movie when I was in my mid-20s, and I was living in what I considered to be a racial closet. When I was out and about in my life, I identified as black, but when I would go home to my family I would identify as what I had grown up with -- a nice white Jewish girl --  and not really acknowledge anything else about my background or my paternity.

At the time, I was really struggling to internally integrate my own identities, of being both black and Jewish, because when I had grown up, Jewish was synonymous with being white. I really thought I was going to make a film much more about being both black and Jewish, and looking at other people's experiences of dealing with those identities.

I feel like we talk so much in society about how people are or aren't integrating, but a lot of times people are having those struggles internally, so I was really curious how other people were dealing with this as I was struggling to deal with it. And I always thought my own story would be a part of it, but I thought it would be a broader film.

In pushing myself, I realized that I was never going to be able to integrate my own identity until I was able to uncover my family's secrets, and as part of that I realized that so many other people were also struggling with their own families' secrets, and by using film to film my process I'd be able to model a process of how important, albeit difficult, it is to have these intense conversations about the things that we don't talk about within our families but still have such a strong impact on who we are.

Early in the film, you say, "Even though I knew there was something different about me, I didn't want to admit it." How much of that came from the way in which you were brought up, and how much of that came from societal pressure to identify yourself?

It's a tricky balance to get right, because the internal is so affected by the external, and especially for children. Until I left my house at 17 and went away to college, I really was a reflection of my family. I didn't really have this identity separate from them.

Obviously I had my own personality, but not necessarily an identity that was separate from theirs, and I liked being a part of that. It was safe, it was comfortable, I wanted to conform to what I was around. At that point, so much of it was external and very little was internal.

Something really important happens when you go off to Georgetown: you're contacted by the Black Student Alliance. How did that come about, and what happened once they contacted you?

One of the big themes of my story is denial, its power, and how I was really fascinated that so many people in my life could believe what they wanted to believe -- including myself. My parents split up when I was 16, and at that point I think I really started questioning where I came from, and when I started applying to college, I didn't really know how to identify myself.

I didn't check any boxes on the application because I was really questioning my race and how to identify myself. When Georgetown admitted me as a black student, and as a result the Black Student Alliance invited me to their meetings, I took it as an opportunity to explore something else.

This film is largely about secrets, and a family not talking about things that they know to be true but don't want to share. As a parent now, how do you imagine having conversations with your children about their identities?

I believe very strongly that you have to raise kids to feel great about themselves, but at the same time not shield them from reality. They're going to encounter that at some point in their lives, and I've had so many people, biracial people in particular, come up to me after screenings and say, "I grew up and I was really loved and supported by family, but I went out into the world and nobody had told me about what I might encounter."

To me, it's really about raising your kids to understand who they are, how the world sees them, and how they can deal with that while feeling really positive about themselves.

Little White Lie is available for download on iTunes on March 31. 

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