Trademarks is Refinery29’s series that highlights women who aren’t just known for their passions — be that in fashion, art, or music — but their killer signature style.
Samantha White’s opening lines of Dear White People include just one of many frustrating questions people who identify as biracial often receive. “Dear white people,” she begins. “Here’s a little tip: When you ask someone who looks ethnically different, What are you?, the answer is usually: A person who’s about to slap the shit out of you.”
Logan Browning, the actress who plays her, delivers the line brilliantly; she’s had to answer that question her entire life.
“My first answer is: ‘My parents are Black,’” she tells Refinery29 via phone from Los Angeles. “Part of the reason I say that is because I want to help shift people’s ideas of different ethnicities, thinking that they all have to look the same.” Browning, whose lead role on the hit Netflix series relied on not just her talents as an actress but her racial identity, was born to play the college radio host dispelling one misconception after the next. “I just wanted to be a part of saying, Yes, just because I have light eyes doesn’t mean that I’m biracial. I can still have Black parents.”
Earlier this year, Browning revealed on the headline-making radio show The Breakfast Club that she’s adopted. “Growing up, I saw myself as Black. I wasn’t raised in a biracial household; I don’t call myself biracial. I don’t think of myself as biracial,” she says. “I think of myself as Black — because that's what I am. But for some people, I guess the confusing part happens, really, when I have to explain that to them.” Browning has also never met her biological parents. “There’s a part of my identity outside of my ethnicity that I don’t know. But I don’t see myself as any different.”
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The 29-year old actress has come a long way from Atlanta, where she was raised. Though she started acting at 14, her first major role would come in 2007, when she starred in Bratz, the live-action musical comedy film based on the popular line of dolls. In 2013, a stint on VH1 TV series Hit The Floor, a Bring It On-style series about a basketball dance team, saw Browning show off her dance background. In her next role in The Perfection, a feature-length horror thriller set for release in 2019, Browning stars as a cello prodigy in pursuit of perfection alongside Allison Williams.
But her turn in Dear White People, which was renewed in June for a third season, is her most honest (and controversial) role yet. “Right off the bat, the show’s title is jarring for some people,” she acknowledges. “If you watch the first 10 minutes of the show, you’ll see that it’s an inclusive piece of art. It’s not meant to exclude anyone. If anything, it’s meant to enlighten and start conversations between the people addressed in the love letter-style title and the faces that are starring in it.”
She notes that her character Sam, who is “genetically made up of 200+ years of oppression and 200+ years of slavery,” is an amalgamation of the two groups at the front of the conversation. “It’s not just a white and Black thing,” she says. That complexity is reflected in Sam’s style, too, where costume designer Ceci mixes modern pieces with thrift store finds to soften the edges of her militant demeanor.
The show reveals Sam caught in a cultural catch-22 because she doesn’t feel comfortable identifying with just one race. When she tries to be more pro-Black, she’s both exalted and persecuted. But Sam is willing to put herself out there, despite her imperfections; as delivered by Browning, who admits to struggling with her own identity politics, the conversation feels authentic, not scripted. “I feel like I’m the right woman for the job,” she agrees. “It’s a work in progress, and it means that I have to constantly keep my ears, mind, and eyes open to change. I have to be okay with transforming in front of people, which is not an easy thing. People are watching me change my mind.”
When news broke last year that Netflix’s television adaptation of the 2014 film of the same name was in production, audiences — predominantly white viewers — threatened to boycott the streaming service. “People are always afraid of giving up their privilege because they feel like that means they’ll disappear,” she says. “They don’t think there’s room for everyone.” She makes the point that privilege (of any kind) can be painful to give up. “No one is saying that you’re going to wake up one morning and say, Oh, what a great day to give up my privilege! That’s not easy when you’ve lived in a world and a system that has always benefited you.”
Browning’s received backlash from within the Black community, too, because she’s still a lighter skinned woman in a leading role. “There is a show that is predominantly African American and the central character is a light-skinned African American woman. That’s been a revelation for me,” she begins. “As a woman and a woman of color in this industry, I do fight for roles. To have an opportunity like this one is very exciting — and yet, at the same time, I’m in a position to really listen to and absorb the feelings of people who would like to see a darker-skinned woman in this title role instead.” Browning agrees, however, on the deficit of women of color, specifically with darker skin tones, in top-billed casts.
“We have to put them in positions that give more opportunities for people to see past skin color. I don’t want people to associate me with keeping other women of color out of a leading role. It’s an interesting position to be in,” she says. Pondering all of this and the future of her career at a pivotal time in Hollywood, she adds, “It cautions me. It’s made me very aware and careful of every move I make.”
She pauses before changing the subject unexpectedly: “I said something in that Breakfast Club interview that I regret and think about every day,” she begins. “I said something about where I’m from in a negative light. I talked about where I went to school versus how my mom would dress me. And I think there was a part of my life growing up where my style became very eclectic and clashed; in some ways, it still is now."
She continues: "My mom was dressing me a certain way and I would go to school and the kids there would be dressed differently — and I was trying to find how to mesh the two worlds with what I actually wanted to be in the world. That’s where a lot of my personal style came in, some of that absurd confusion and just being like, ‘Ya know what? I’m just gonna wear what I wanna wear. I’m gonna mix it all. Whatever part of what my mom gives me that makes me feel good, I’m gonna wear that. Whatever part of what the kids are wearing at school that I like, I’m gonna try that.’”
Along with her character on DWP, Browning is starting to come into her own. “I do think a lot of my identity and fashion was built back then because I was seeing so many different kinds of people and different classes of people and how they would wear and work with what they had (or what they thought was cool or what they thought they needed to wear),” she says of her upbringing. But at this point in her career, Browning is realizing who she might be — and learning that the outward expression of her identity doesn’t have to be so black and white.
“I remember going to school wearing something my mom picked out for me and I asked my friend, ‘Does this match?’ and she said, ‘It doesn’t, but you never do. That’s just kind of you.’ And I loved that. I’ve held onto that forever. I definitely think that all originated from my experience as a young person trying to navigate my identity,” she says. Browning works with stylists Wayman & Micah who take these complexities into consideration when dressing her for the red carpet, events, and her Refinery29 shoot. “When I would go to school, it was kind of split down the middle between preppy — Aeropostale, American Eagle, etc. — and very urban — Baby Phat, FUBU, Echo. My style was neither one of those.”
She’s since figured it all out. At least, as much as one can: “As I got older, I did lean more toward what my mom would tell me. She wanted me to be a classy woman — which is what I want for myself, as well — and ladylike, which doesn’t mean all things girly and dresses. I think being ladylike is a queen type of essence. A queen wears what she wants and wears it well, with regal authority. That’s what I feel like my mom has given me.”
Browning would realize later, after attending her first runway show, that fashion isn’t just one look. “I went to the Moschino fashion show recently and the models were so diverse. It felt like the world,” she says, adding that she loves when even fantasies are representative of what reality looks like. “I think about that when I watch television and, for the first time, I see this family that’s blended and my whole body kind of goes on alert, and I’m like, This is different. But why is this different? Because you never see this on television! But why am I in love with it? Because this is what the world looks like! By giving people of color and varied backgrounds opportunities on and behind a runway, you allow more people in the world to be seen.”
On camera, Browning explores herself through different roles. Off-screen, she admits she’s still learning. And that’s when it hits her: “That’s the thing about me: If you look at everything I’ve done or worn, I’m still not sure you’d be able to say, ‘Logan is this.’” She pauses before bursting into spontaneous laughter. “And maybe you can! Maybe I’m the one who can’t do that. Maybe that’s good for me to keep thinking about. Maybe there will be a transition in my life where there will be this kind of moment where I go, Ah ha! It’s exactly this. But for right now, there’s no box you can put me in.”