Sabrina Onana, 21, is an Italo-Cameroonian from Naples, who has lived in Paris for 5 years and is studying Sociology at the Sorbonne. In 2018 she decided to make a film about being a second generation immigrant in Italy. We interviewed her in Milan where she presented her documentary Crossing the color line, in which the Afro-Italians she meets talk about identity, discrimination and citizenship. A chorus of voices explaining their life experience in a time when they are often the subject of the story but no-one asks their opinion.

What inspired you to make this documentary?

“I decided to make the documentary in 2018 after the result of the Italian political elections when, for the first time, I realized that I had never heard of ius soli. So far the problem of citizenship had not concerned me directly because, as the daughter of an Italian mother, I had always had Italian citizenship”.

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What did you decide to do?

“I started doing some research and realised that the question was very important to me and that in Italy there wasn’t a constructive conversation about issues related to racism. So I thought it would be important to let these young people speak for themselves and to create a space where they could speak freely and take control of their own story”.

When did the project start?

“In July 2018, when I was already in Paris, I came to Italy and posted on social media asking for so-called “second generationers” who were interested in talking about themselves on camera. Initially the project wasn’t only about African descendants, but then this became the focus because I understood the dynamics of exclusion and discrimination. What’s more, Afro-descendants have the stigma of immigration on their skin and they are always on view.”

In these five years in Paris have you found any differences between the way Afro-Italians and Afro-French people talk about themselves?

“French Afro-descendants live in a post-colonial country, where the legacy of colonialism is very present and they are more aware of it. There is a continuity between the countries where their parents come from and France, for example in the language. And I think that in France there is a real spatial segregation in the banlieues, which has enabled Afro-descendants to create cultural and linguistic codes which they can identify with”.

This doesn’t happen in Italy where the majority of Afro-descendants are obliged to identify with the only model there is, that of the white majority. So they grow up in a permanent contradiction, as they are unable to create a collective experience, which we are now beginning to call the Afro-Italian spirit. Everyone is looking for a category through which they can express what it means to be Italian and black. But there are so many differences.

Can you give us some examples?

“For example when you ask many Afro-descendants born in France whether they feel French, they don’t reply as easily as Afro-Italians do when they say they feel Italian. An Afro-French person won’t say “yes, I’m French”, but they feel a very close tie to the neighbourhood where they grew up because it is the place where they have built up familiarity. And there is one last big difference between Italian and French Afro-descendants because the former do not have a philosophic literary tradition like the latter, who can identify with the texts of authors of négritude, of Frantz Fanon or of Cheikh Diop.”

Why should someone who isn’t concerned about issues relating to second generations watch Crossing the color line?

“I believe that in Italy there is a problem of listening and comprehension, so if we want to understand we need to listen to others instead of speaking on their behalf or trying to explain to them the meaning of their experience. People who are not affected by these issues should work to normalise the image of black people in Italy, because if they have a stereotypical view, it will be difficult to have a relationship that is not based on domination in interactions with Afro-descendants. And this is just based on ignorance.”

Has it happened to you?

“I was once asked by a woman what it is OK to ask a black person and what is not OK. I think we should accept that a person can tell you what you can do and what not based on their own sensitivity and not on yours. The way you approach someone obliges them to accept your script and this is a problem.

Translated by Anne Parry