Lacey Schwartz Outside the Box

an interview with Susan Weidman Schneider

“When I was in high school, people were always coming up to me and asking, ‘What are you?’ Trying to fit me into a box. I just had the sense that other people — in particular black women in my school — resented me. That was the most negative feeling.”

“Even in nursery school, one kid — and this is my strongest memory — said, ‘Show me your gums. If they’re white, you’re white. If they’re black, you’re black’. I was aware of looking different.”

“I felt a certain amount of responsibility to other people to give them an answer than made sense.”

“When they asked, ‘What are you?’ I would answer, ‘I’m Jewish’.”

Now when people ask, I answer, ‘I’m mixed — half black, half white’.”

The family snapshots and home videos that Lacey Schwartz shows on her website and in the trailer for her new film, “Outside the Box,” confirm this. And they’re wrenching. Not horrifying, but startling to watch, because she’s a black kid in a white family and no one seems to know. Lacey Schwartz really does look like what she is: the mixed-race child of her white Jewish mother and a man with whom the mom had an affair in the early years of her marriage (Lacey’s parents divorced when she was 16).

The clues were everywhere, though nobody in Lacey Schwartz’s family was willing to read them. Her Bat Mitzvah pictures and even her baby pictures — all up on goldglassproductions. com — suggest a racial heritage so obvious that ignoring it must have taken energetic denial on the part of everyone near her.

Getting ready for Georgetown University at 18, she didn’t check off any box for race — not even “other.” Instead, she stapled a photo onto the application form, the school’s cue to assign her to an African-American advisor, and an African-American student group. When she came home from her first year of college to the upstate New York town where she’d grown up, she asked her mom, “Why do you think I look the way I do?” Her mother revealed that her biological father is an African-American man who’d been at the periphery of Lacey’s life growing up, a distant family friend. “I found out I was, in fact, black.”

But the trail had always been there to follow. ”When I was 15, I was sitting in synagogue and an old woman behind me kept reaching over to touch me. She was touching my hair, patting me, stroking me. And then she reached over and grabbed my hand, and — I can still feel those dry, peeling lips — she kissed the back of my hand and said ‘I’m so glad we have an Ethiopian Jew in our presence’.”

What did Lacey do?

“I wheeled around to my mother beside me and said ‘Change seats with me this minute’.” But Lacey never discussed with her mother why the old woman — like some Greek chorus sent by the playwright — had confused the American teen with a rescued Ethiopian.

And then there was the time… “When I was in high school my mom took me and my friend Samara to the Meadowlands [an arena in New Jersey] for an all-day R&B concert. The place was packed, and about halfway through the day my mom says, ‘Wow, Samara, you and I are the only two white people here’.”

Her maternal grandparents never acknowledged that she’s bi-racial. And though Schwartz protects her father, and says they’ve never spoken about why she “looks the way” she does, even her available-to-all YouTube video, with its shots of her parents and grandparents, suggests that she knows he knows. When she says “my father,” she means the dad who raised her; the other man she refers to as “my biological father” when she mentions him at all. Over the course of several conversations, she said of her dad, “Neither one of us has ever brought it up. I can only imagine how he may feel. I don’t know how he feels. I love him, and he is my father, and I’m just in the process of figuring out what conversations I need to have to get on with my life — without separating myself out from my father and my mother. I feel sympathetic towards both of them, to be honest. But I’m the one who embodies this affair, embodies these secrets. I’m the one who still has to hide — who still carries these secrets.”

Schwartz, now 30, is making a movie about her life. Part old family footage, part documentary on black Jews in America, and part — “It’s tricky,” she says often — uncensored therapy sessions as she tries to untangle the conundrums of her identity with the support of her white, female, not-Jewish therapist. “Outside the Box,” a work still in progress, earned a 2006 All Access Creative Promise Award from Manhattan’s Tribeca Film Festival. And now it’s less sociological and more about Lacey Schwartz’s own fraught journey.

It’s not the first time film has provided her a vehicle for some pointed observations. At Harvard Law School, she says she sometimes made a film in lieu of writing a paper for a class. One was “Schvartze” — “My name is Schwartz; it was a play on words,” she said. Another was “Legally Black, Brown, Yellow & Red.” She became involved in the Black Law Students Association and protested some of the school’s policies.

“I was quoted in The New York Times, the New Yorker, the Associated Press, about issues of race on campus; I was interviewed as a representative of the Black Law Students Association. Members of my family saw the press and mentioned it to my mother. No one talked about it to me.

“I got involved with the Black Entertainment and Sports Lawyers Association, BESLA, and I would tell my family I just was at an ‘entertainment and sports lawyers association’ conference. My race was the elephant in the room.”

People who have heard Lacey’s story at conferences, or who’ve seen the privately-circulated trailer for her film, have asked why she’s not outraged at her family. “Have there been moments when I’ve been angry with my mother? Of course. But we’ve talked about it and worked through it. I think I’m relatively empathic to people and their shortcomings. I mean, life is tricky.”

Jews of color — black, Asian — have often appeared in Lilith, along with women who are mixed-race Jews. But Lacey’s story is different, as she acknowledged when she said, after reading those earlier pieces, that she didn’t entirely identify with them.

At 18, she said, “I found out three things. Everything I thought about my life changed… . I found out my mom had had an affair, my dad was not my biological father — and my biological father was black.”

What does it mean to her to be Jewish and non-white, and to have come to this knowledge as a young adult?

“I feel a sense of belonging now in black settings, black congregations — though the people who go to synagogue on Saturday morning are more religious than I am. In white communities, I often feel a bit different. The issue of someone ‘passing’, consciously or not, is partly whether someone can, whether other people will believe they are white. For me, I can’t. When I believed I was white and told people that, they never seemed to buy it.”

“Reboot is the first Jewish community I ever had outside my family, since high school.” She’s referring to the diverse and eclectic organization of Jews, many of them in the arts, who, according to the Reboot website, gather to “understand generational changes in identity, community and meaning.” A couple of years ago, Schwartz, though a friend, was invited to attend the group’s annual “summit” in Colorado.

“All of a sudden I was in this community of people all of whom had a connection to being Jewish and all of whom were amazing. I loved it. I did not feel like a token — I felt like there was a lot I had in common with a lot of the people there. At Passover and other holidays I still go home to my family, I don’t necessarily go to a Rebooters house, but it is a part of my life. It’s inspiring to see other people trying to connect with their Jewish identity. It opens my mind up to different ways of being Jewish. It felt almost spiritual, reinventing ritual. It really touched me.”

Now, Lacey Schwartz has become something of a hot property in the Jewish world. She said that “on a daily basis” she’s dealing with aspects of the organized Jewish community. “Funding” — for completion of the film — “is how I originally got into it. Jewish people are very aware of issues of identity. Not diversity necessarily, but issues of identity and family and community.”

But does race trump Jewish identity? “This changes for me. When I was in college and law school, the campuses were more segregated and racially charged. My black identity felt more pronounced than when I am living my life in New York. New York is a city where people mix. Nonetheless, when I’m in a setting of all white people I am often aware of being ‘other’ — whether they are aware of it or not. When I’m in the black community I do feel at home. I feel that I fit in.

“My boyfriend is black and white, not Jewish. I was always attracted to black or mixed-race men. It feels comfortable to me. Is it that I assumed some men would not find me attractive? Or am I simply I drawn to black or mixed men? Probably a combination of both.

“If it were up to me, would I send my kid to Hebrew School? Yes.”