Image credit: Antonia Munteanu
It is with frustration and anger that we react towards the disgraceful public display of sexism and misogynoir directed at Cambridge University Charity Fashion Show’s headline act, Princess Nokia. As representatives of the CUSU BME Campaign and women of colour network, FLY, we must emphasise that the humiliation experienced by Princess Nokia onstage is all too common in the daily experiences of women of colour at Cambridge.
In the interest of expressing our concern at the behaviour directed towards the young woman of colour during her performance, we met with Princess Nokia backstage following the incident. She introduced herself to us as Destiny, and responded to us with openness and gratitude. Princess Nokia described the behaviour of the white male student who harassed her during her performance, saying that she could “see him mouthing dirty obscenities like, show me your tits.”
Reflecting on her reaction to the situation, she soberly expressed that everything had “happened so fast;” however she affirmed her “zero tolerance” stance towards “instances of sexism and sexual harassment”. Princess Nokia expressed her regret that her performance had been cut short, saying to us that she wanted to “let the women of colour know she was sorry” but stressed that she felt the incident in question left her in a position where her safety and comfort were severely compromised. At this point, we would like to reaffirm our solidarity with Princess Nokia, and also express our respect for her willingness to share her experience with us despite being obviously upset by the night’s events. Though many of the attendees of the Fashion Show continued to party and enjoy the entertainments of the night, she was left shaken by an incident that will inevitably shape her perception of Cambridge.
Though this particular incident is shocking, Princess Nokia’s sad and tired disposition backstage indicated something that we also feel; that such occurrences of harassment are neither unusual nor unexpected for women of colour. The incident at the Fashion Show is emblematic of the routine degradation of women, especially of women of colour, who attempt to operate within spaces dominated by white men – spaces like Cambridge. It is typical of the entertainment industry to fetishise black culture for the pleasure of white audiences, yet with this fetishisation comes the inherent objectification and dehumanisation of black people.
There have already been many condemnations of Princess Nokia’s response to the incident and expressions of doubt regarding whether she was provoked at all, claiming that she “launched an attack” on a student before “storming” off stage. Such language frames Princess Nokia within the trope of the ‘angry black woman’ and is an easy, lazy way of turning a blind eye to the real issue at hand, while also conveniently erasing the real provocation and harassment she faced at the hands of a white man.
We urge the Cambridge student body to recognise Princess Nokia’s treatment, both by the Fashion Show crowd and student press, not in isolation but as symptomatic of the increasing hostility white-dominated spaces and institutions project towards people of colour. The student body’s immediate negation of the incident is parallel to the silencing students of colour feel when they report and respond to instances of harassment within the University.
Princess Nokia’s experience leaves us with the reminder that Cambridge is not yet the safe place it should be for marginalised people, who are still vulnerable to provocation and harassment. As Cambridge students, we must respond to this reality with an embarrassed readiness for change.
Editor’s Note: 1. We would like to add that Princess Nokia did explicitly state during her conversation with Jason and Richelle that she “does not condone violence” but reiterated that she felt that the violence and harassment directed towards her compromised her safety – she also affirmed her “zero-tolerance” stance towards “instances of sexism and sexual harassment.”
2. We would like to reassert that Jason Okundaye co-wrote this article in his role as Vice-President of the CUSU BME Campaign and not as a member or representative of FLY, as has been misstated in some coverage of this piece. Richelle George, FLY Facilitator, and Jason jointly agreed to publish their article on FLY’s blog due to its existence as an available platform for issues relating to women of colour in Cambridge.