Finding New Definitions of Black and White

09/02/2011 03:16 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2011

The term "acting white" has long been a controversial one in the black community and is rife with multiple meanings. It can stand for a betrayal of your own race or serve as a signal to others for how you talk, dress, speak or even the way you look. Ten years ago, I took this phrase to mean one thing. But what does it mean for black men and women today?

Bill Cosby received significant attention for speaking out about the issue in 2004. He focused on the term as it pertains to education. How black individuals who focused on their studies as a means to a better life, were criticized for "acting white." While the term has roots in education, it has long since expanded to mean much more. I went to a school with few black students and somehow I still heard the term -- and it wasn't solely about grades.

Throughout my high school and college careers, I have always found myself with more white friends than black ones. A blunt statement but a true one nonetheless. Given the fact that I grew up in a mostly white neighborhood and attended private school, I suppose it's not all that surprising. Attending a small school with an even smaller number of minorities meant as a black student, you took one of two routes. You either surrounded yourself with other black students, or you found yourself conforming to the environment around you. I took the latter. Combine that with what I wore, what I looked like and the fact that I had a father in the public eye (one in a traditionally black profession at that) and voilà. The lines were clearly drawn -- it was black and white. I was straying too far from what it meant to "act black."

Today however, the lines between black and white, and subsequently what it means to "act white" or "act black" are blurred. Take the recent New York Times article for example, "Pushing the Boundaries of Black Style." The article highlights Street Etiquette, a blog that is redefining what cool looks like for black men. Whereas the fashion on Street Etiquette may have at one time been considered nerdy or "white," today it serves as the perfect example for how people are embracing their race outside of traditional boundaries, refusing to define themselves by one style. A recent article by Touré titled "Preconceptions" re-emphasizes the dangers of defining people based on traditional racial stereotypes. Being black today means more than acting or dressing a certain way.

And yet despite changing definitions, society continues to expect individuals to act the way they look. The idea that a woman who looks black should act black continues to exist both inside and outside of the black community. It exists when I am sitting at a restaurant with my Caucasian and Korean friends, and can't help but notice an older female look twice. It exists when I say I attended the University of Pennsylvania and the person I'm speaking with reveals a quick flicker of surprise. It exists when I wear certain brand names.

As a teenager, to be viewed as "acting white" was at times an isolating feeling. Now, through different life experiences I understand that I can be proud to be black and simultaneously stand by the fact that being black for me doesn't mean looking or acting the way others think being black should look and act.

For young people today who are bombarded with conflicting ideals, theories and even styles, we need to accept and celebrate the fact that being black comes in many shades, shapes and sizes. If we don't, the debate over the term "acting white" will only continue when we should be focusing our energy on more pertinent issues within the community.