Last night, the local JCC showed a documentary called Little White Lie about a child (Lacey Schwartz), who was raised “white” in a Jewish family, who learns she is half Black because her mother had an affair with a Black man.
I thought the film would be an anecdotal telling of what it means to grow up Jewish in an interracial family, but instead the film was layered with so many other issues that in the discussion that came after it, we were all grasping at one topic after another to try to understand. There was the mother (unforgiven by this mostly older, white, Jewish audience) who had an affair with a man that appeared to go on for maybe a decade. There was the father so mired by his own hurt that he was unable to open his heart to see how his daughter hurt too (unforgiven by some of the audience). There was the biological father, who had fathered seven other children in his lifetime (neutral to the audience), there was the lies and denial within the family and friend structure (the lying being the real problem according to most in the audience), there was the race issue (which some in the audience did not think was a major issue) and there was everything else.
A whole lot of something packed into a documentary about one little girl who was raised white and realized she was Black in college.
The discussion afterwards was led by Touro Synagogue’s Rabbi Alexis Berk, who started the discussion with a Talmudic take on lying:
“Thou shall not bear false witness” (Exodus 20:16)
“Thou shall not steal, thou shall not deny falsely, and thou shall not lie one to another” (Leviticus 19: 11)
“Distance yourself from a false matter” (Exodus 23:7)
Read: lying is pretty much unacceptable in Jewish law.
However, lying is acceptable under these conditions:
- Lying to preserve the cause of peace, not to hurt another person’s feelings, or to provide comfort.
- Lying in a situation where honesty might cause oneself or another person harm.
- Lying for the sake of modesty or in order not to appear arrogant.
- Lying for the sake of decency, i.e., not telling the truth about intimate matters.
- Lying to protect one’s property from scoundrels.
I walked away from the documentary and the discussion feeling for this woman who was brought up under secrets and lies. Several people in the audience wondered why she embraced her Black side but not her white side as fervently. I had different reactions to this – I embrace my Sephardic side because it is what makes me different, and I believe Lacey embraced her Black side because it is what makes her different. I also feel that looking Black in the United States whether from the vestige of the one drop rule or the legacy of slavery means something undeniable, and accepting and holding up this identity through the support of the Black community is what makes being a Black person in this country tolerable.
She could have continued in her white, Jewish world, but there would have always been a piece of her missing from that landscape. So when she embraced her Black heritage, she was not denying her past, but rather filling in her identity. The same as how President Obama does not deny his white heritage by claiming he is a Black man. He is a Black man. That is how he and she are seen in the U.S. and around the world, for that reason, this is the identity that feels like home to them.
A friend of mine who had not seen the film said there was shame on the part of the mother in not revealing the Black biological father’s identity. But the shame rippled in too many disparate waves that were yoked together – a young, white (Jewish) woman who is given the job of managing a playground that is 100% used by Blacks, a newly married woman’s infidelity, a lack of clarity of whose child the mother was carrying, a willing suspension of disbelief that the daughter was her husband’s, and then once these layers overlapped, it was hard to peel them back and reveal to her child the truth. Was the lie because the biological father was Black or she is half Black? I would venture to say that as the mother tells her in the film, if he had not been Black, no one would have ever known.
But he was.
My favorite line from the documentary comes from her high school boyfriend who says, “White people will think anything.” I have to say that sums it up. I always tell parents you have to help your child notice difference. White people don’t allow their white children to speak about difference in a healthy manner. If that had been a reverse situation where it was a Black family and the mother had an affair with a white man, you best believe the entire family would have been asking questions.
Missed Lacey Schwartz’s Little White Lie in theaters? Check it out Monday night, March 23rd on Independent Lens on PBS. Check local listings here:http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/broadcast.html