Most people would probably run for shelter if confronted with death threats. But Mo Asumang had a different impulse: “I don’t want to hide — it’s not my nature.”
Asumang — who is half-German and half-Ghanaian — came into the public eye during the 1990s as one of the first black women on German television. More recently, the actress and presenter became the target of right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis simply for being a person of color on television.
One particularly jarring threat came via song — a track titled “This Bullet Is For You, Mo Asumang” by the German white-power band White Aryan Rebels.
“Of course I get emails from neo-Nazis, and they are really awful,” she says. “I don’t want to mention what they write.”
But instead of shying away from her attackers, Asumang decided to confront them directly. “I thought, ‘Who are these people? How do they react when they meet me?’" she says.
She filmed those confrontations as part of an upcoming documentary called "The Aryans." The title references the attacks against her, which are based on her “non-Aryan” identity. But Aryan is a problematic title — one that Asumang says was co-opted by the Nazis to describe the “master race.” Historically, she says, it’s not a white identity at all.
“I just wanted to find out, what are Aryans? Because nobody ever questions this," she says. "Everybody thinks it’s tall, blond and blue-eyed — what the Nazis told us in the Nazi times."
In fact, the term has a much different provenance. "[The word Aryan] comes from Iran, from old Persia, from parts of India — that’s where the Aryans have been living," Asumang explains. "The Germans are no Aryans. In the Nazis’ time, they just took this word because they needed something against the Jews.”
In fact, the name Iran translates to “The Land of the Aryans,” says Asumang. She traveled there to learn more about the historical meaning of the term — and discovered that many Iranians actually identify as Aryan.
“All the Nazis and KKK over the globe who are using this word, they are just ridiculous," she says.
As part of the documentary, she also traveled to the American South, where she sought out interviews with members of the Ku Klux Klan. She says there is a “strong connection to Germany” within American white supremacist groups.
“[In Germany,] there was the definition of the 'Aryan descent.' It was written down that people who are not Aryan, in their eyes, are people of color. And Jewish people are — they wrote — gypsies. That’s the same idea of the KKK, of the Nazis. It’s just one thing," Asumang says.
In one interaction, she questioned a Klan member about the group’s infamous tradition of burning crosses. The member denied that it was racially motivated, saying it was a way of praising Jesus. She replied by saying that “Jesus loves black people” — which was met with silence.
“I don’t know why people don’t ask these things,” Asumang says of the conversation. “All the hundreds of years the Ku Klux Klan is burning crosses, and nobody’s asking this?”
And while KKK members were willing to speak with her, Asumang says German neo-Nazis were not so open.
“In Germany, the big bosses of the neo-Nazis tell all the people that are going on these marches, ‘Don’t speak to the press; don’t speak to black people,’” she explains. “If they talk to a black woman, maybe they find out, ‘Wow, she’s nice, she’s open’… and it’s not the thing in their ideology, then everything breaks down. And so it’s very, very important for the Nazis' bosses to tell these people not to talk to us.”
But Asumang believes that speaking to members of these groups is a crucial practice. “If we don’t talk, nothing will change. It’s important to go on the street, march against the neo-Nazis,” she says. “But in the end, it’s very much more important to speak to each other, and we have to do this early.”
In one of the final scenes of her film, Asumang meets a young neo-Nazi who claims he is trying to separate himself from the group. She shows him a picture of her white German grandmother, who raised her. Asumang only recently found out her grandmother was a member of the SS in the 1940s.
“It just shows we can come together,” she says. “We don’t have to separate, we don’t have to hate each other. It’s possible. Even the SS grandmother raised a black child."
Mo Asumang is touring the East Coast during the month of September to promote "The Aryans." You can find tour dates on the film's website.