Jeneé Osterheldt

Jewish girl overcomes a ‘Little White Lie’ about race

Lacey Schwartz’s mother didn’t tell her that her biological father was black. She turned that experience into the film “Little White Lie,” screening in KC on Wednesday.
Lacey Schwartz’s mother didn’t tell her that her biological father was black. She turned that experience into the film “Little White Lie,” screening in KC on Wednesday. From Lacey Schwartz

When I look at one of her old baby pictures, I think of my own childhood snapshots.

A mixed little girl sits happily in her white mama’s lap. It’s a sweet picture of Lacey Schwartz and her mother. But unlike me, she didn’t know her true heritage until she was grown. Ironically, her last name means black in German and Yiddish, but Lacey grew up white.

Her caramel-latte brown skin and dark, curly hair stood out in her loving, upper-middle-class Jewish household in mostly white Woodstock, N.Y. The family had an explanation for that: Lacey looked like her father’s Sicilian grandfather.

But deep down, she always wondered. By the time she got to college, it was apparent there was more to Lacey’s story. She included a photograph with her application to Georgetown University. When she was accepted, the school passed her name on to the black student association, which sent her an invitation.

“I was strongly questioning why I looked the way I did, and when I got that letter it was the final straw,” says Lacey, on the phone from her New York home. “It allowed me to openly question my connection and gave me an opportunity to see what it was and understand the black community.”

By the end of her freshman year, she asked her mom for the truth. It was a difficult discussion, but Lacey learned that her biological father was a black man. After 18 years of living as a white woman, she learned she was biracial. A family secret changed the dynamic of everything.

Now 37, she explores that in “Little White Lie,” a documentary about identity, family, denial and honesty.

The Urban League of Greater Kansas City, along with the Jewish Community Relations Bureau, will host a screening at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Screenland Crown Center. Lacey will be on hand for a discussion afterward.

“I lived over a decade in a racial closet,” Lacey says. “Learning the truth was a relief that led to this larger search on how to integrate my two identities. I personally identify as biracial. But I look at that as a category of being black with the understanding that other biracial people may not feel that way.”

Although race and identity are a huge part of her documentary, family secrets and little white lies are what audiences are connecting to most strongly. On Lacey’s website, littlewhiteliethefilm.com, people are sharing their own family secrets.

“Family secrets and the conversations you do or do not have with your family influence how you view yourself,” she says. “My story is a tool to help other people have those conversations and connect their experiences. Going through the process of having these difficult conversations has brought my family to a closer and more authentic place.”

In the white, liberal community where she grew up, no one talked about race. It just wasn’t a discussion. That’s part of the problem we face today as we try to overcome racism.

“We are struggling with conversations about race in society,” she says. “A lot of people’s viewpoint on race is super personal, and it has a lot to do with family and who we come from. Family is the building block of society. We have to talk about race productively at home. If we’re struggling to talk about race as a family, how can we move past the tragedies in society?”

And that’s the family secret we need to tell. Equality, identity, hope, kindness, acceptance, awareness, honesty, love — it all starts at home.

To reach Jeneé Osterheldt, call 816-234-4380 or email josterheldt@kcstar.com. “Like” her page on Facebook and never miss a column. On Twitter @jeneeinkc.

WEDNESDAY

The Urban League of Greater Kansas City and the Jewish Community Relations Bureau present a screening of “Little White Lie” at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Screenland Crown Center, 2405 Grand Blvd. Filmmaker Lacey Schwartz will be there for a discussion afterward. A $10 donation is suggested. Tickets can be reserved online at eventbrite.com/e/special-screening-of-little-white-lie-tickets-14067366873.

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