With two white parents and no black family members (save for a dark Sicilian uncle a couple generations removed), Lacey Schwartz was raised thinking she was white. Growing up, Schwartz’s community was predominantly white: her friends, her classes, her summer camp.
But the few black people in Schwartz’s life struck a nerve—and poked holes in the story she told herself and in the story her family told her.
I worked on Schwartz’s documentary Little White Lie, which details her journey from white to black, of being the product of a family secret overloaded with an extramarital affair, love, and betrayal.
During that time, it wasn’t the salacious stuff I was interested in. I wanted to know about how Schwartz came into blackness and who ushered her in. When you don’t grow up with a black parent or in a black community, or even consciously knowing you are black, how do you become black?
I came to learn that the black people in her life made lasting impressions on her—from near and far—even before she had the language or knowledge of her blackness. They pushed her, listened to her, taught and accepted her.
It was black people who always knew Lacey Schwartz was black. No one had the wool over their eyes. So I asked her about it.
When I was in elementary school there was one biracial kid. I had short hair, which at that age was weird for a girl. And he also had this fluffy hair. We both had the same fluffy hair. On a boy it was a better look. I saw similarities between us, which was especially interesting considering I was looking at straight and long hair on girls as the standard of beauty.
But he moved to California. He is the only brown person I remember in my class in elementary school. High school was when I moved, and I went from going to school in one district to another. There were black people in my school but because there were huge class differences across race there weren’t any people of color in my honors classes.
Often times when a school is really segregated people come together around sports. And I didn’t play any, I was in mock trial. I was very academic. It came down to who was in my classes. I was trapped in honors classes and only had interacted with white kids, a real division.
You told me once that you mostly dated black or biracial men in high school. Why do you think that was?
Once I got to high school and I started questioning my racial identity, I was searching for something that was going to make me feel comfortable. It was very reassuring for me when I met Matt, that I met someone who looked like me. I found my journal the other day and I was writing about the boys I liked and there was this one kid in elementary school who was this stereotypical blond hair, blue-eyed pretty boy. And he was by far the standard of beauty. Straight out of Sweet Valley High. My ideal was this blond-haired kid, but this biracial kid was more realistic for me because of how I looked. So sometimes it was about who was going to find me attractive.
I thought, “I’m brown, so brown people will like me.” Versus, “I’m brown so white people won’t be attracted to me.” That’s something that felt really comfortable to me. And if white guys did like me, it’s some exotic thing, like, I’m not really their chick.
One of your boyfriends, Matt, told you you were black, point blank, in high school. Did you hear him?
It wasn’t the first time. I think what really distinguishes Matt from other people is that he was in my close sphere. There were other people who would make comments in the hallways in high school. But with Matt, he was inside my bubble.
Looking back—and I don’t know if this is typical of being in high school and keeping it moving—but I had this incredible ability to focus on what I focused on and not focus on what I didn’t want to focus on. It’s amazing to me what little recollection I have of reflecting on those interactions in the hallways of my high school where girls would come up to me and confront me about my skin color. I just told them that I was white. I told them what they needed to hear so I could just keep it moving.
I remember going to a Yankees game. I was probably 11. I remember sitting in front of some adults who were asking me why I looked the way I did. Those sorts of questions from strangers was not uncommon.
What differentiated Matt was that he wasn’t just making some offhand comment. The information that he was telling me was not unknown to me. Yes, I knew I looked different than my parents. What I wasn’t willing to do at that time was to dig deeper into that. In hindsight I was in survival mode. Without consciously knowing it.
One of things I feel very strongly about is the power of denial in my story and how I believe before you lie to other people you lie to yourself first. And how you convince yourself to believe what you want to believe.
And I also think there are different stages of denial. The first stage, which was learned behavior from my family: lie to yourself and convince yourself you can believe what you want to believe. The second stage is when you know deep down the truth but you’re not willing to admit it to yourself. And the third stage is when you know the truth and you’re actually admitting it to yourself but not talking about it with other people.
When I was with Matt I was in the second stage. My parents’ relationship was falling apart and that was crazy because I had defined myself as an extension of my family and all of the sudden that thing no longer existed. So this idea of going in full throttle of “who am I?” didn’t make sense at that time. I was leaving for college in a year and a half. I just waited.
It’s unclear in your film the transition from high school to college, from being white to being black. It feels a little sudden, like you had never once considered you were black and then all of the sudden you were black. Is that true? Or did some of what the black people in your life said prior to high school finally sink in?
When I got to college it wasn’t that I was black, I was just down with black people.They admitted me as a black student and I went with that but not exactly. I barely knew what race was. I knew nothing about black people: history, culture, or anything. I remember getting to college and taking African American Studies classes and the world literally opening up. I hadn’t been exposed to it. It was like race 101 for me.
When I got to college, I was around black people who were actually in my classes. It was the first time I had any real exposure to the black community.
People would question me and I would actually be pretty honest about it. “My parents are white and I don’t know why I look the way I do.” And they all looked at me and thought, “That’s Lacey and she has no idea.”
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.