My son was born with a large bruise-like birthmark on his low back and buttocks. Not overly concerned, but curious, we asked our White nurse about it. She told us it was called a “Mongolian spot.” Both my husband and I must have had a visible reaction, because she quickly followed with, “I don’t know why they call it that. They just do.” A year later I recounted this story to a white family member (whom I am close to and love dearly). He didn’t see a problem. Thought I was overreacting. The conservation quickly deteriorated into a heated argument. Not knowing my history I was helpless to defend myself. Wasn’t “Mongolian,” he wondered, just a harmless – maybe even nice – reference to the people of Mongolia?
Mongolian spots are congenital birthmarks found on the lower backs, buttocks, sides and sometimes shoulders, of primarily infants with East Asian heritage (but also East African, Native American, Polynesians, Micronesians and Latin American). They typically disappear 3-5 yrs after birth.
The term was coined by German internist and anthropologist Erwin Bälz who spent 27 years in Japan and is considered cofounder of its modern (western) medicine. In 1881 he married a Japanese woman and had two multiracial Asian children of his own. In 1902, he was appointed personal physician-in-waiting to Emperor Meiji and the Imperial household of Japan. Finding blue spots on Japanese babies, he thought these spots were characteristic of Johann Bluembach’s “Mongoloid” race, and named them accordingly.
Johann Friedrich Bluembach was a massively influential figure in the development of race as we know it today. Sometimes referred to as the “Father of Scientific Anthropology” or the “Founding Father of Craniometry,” he laid out the scientific template for contemporary race categories.
In his On the Natural Variety of Mankind, he mapped a hierarchical pyramid of 5 human types (founded on the description of human skulls):
- the Caucasian, Caucasoid, or “white” race
- the Mongolian, Mongoloid, or “yellow” race
- the Malayan or “brown” race
- the Ethiopian, Negroid or “black” race
- the American or “red” race
Though Blumenbach strongly opposed slavery and believed in the potential equality of all people, he placed “Caucasians” at the top of his pyramid because a skull found in the Caucasus Mountains was to him “the most beautiful form of the skull, from which…the others diverge.” Many European scholars at the time showed tremendous interest in the Caucasus Mountains, particularly the holy “Mount Ararat.” It was there, according to the Old Testament (Genesis 8: 4), that Noah’s Ark came to rest after the Flood. Supporting a Judeo-Christian worldview, Bluembach considered the Caucasus Mountains to be the birthplace of humankind (i.e. only Europeans) and that the Mongolian and the Ethiopian had diverged from the Caucasian. By stark contrast, it is thought his use of “Mongoloid” derived from the Mongol people who caused great terror throughout Eurasia during the Mongol Empire invasions.
The words “Mongol”, “Mongolian”, “Mongoloid” had been extensively used throughout European history since the 13th century usually in a negative manner (see also this and this).
Blumenbach’s works themselves were not widely read in early America but American academics (notably Samuel George Morton) distorted and recast them. This “scientific” image of man went on to form the basis of modern racial theory, and hence racism. Today, in addition to obvious negative socio-political associations, the term “Mongoloid” is also considered derogatory by the scientific community due to its association with discredited models of racial classification. I believe most would agree all the –oid racial terms (e.g. Mongoloid, Caucasoid, Negroid, etc.) are controversial and offensive no matter how they are used.
And yet, despite its insidious history and racist associations, we continue to use “Mongolian spot” to label a physical appearance of our young Asian and multiracial Asian children. In fact, I have even heard it used endearingly, or sweetly, as a signal of the child “belonging” to Asian culture. Interesting to me how our nurse deferred blame to some unidentifiable other, “I don’t know why they call it that. They just do,” denying her role as an active agent in perpetuating the term. As a postpartum nurse she is on the frontline. She is in every day contact with hundreds, probably thousands, of parents of Asian and multiracial Asian children. Bewildered by the entry of a new person into their life, I’m sure many of these parents tiredly accept “Mongolian spot” on her medical authority, and then move on to try to figure out the incredible tasks of breastfeeding and/or sleeping. I suspect no one would reprimand her if she simply started saying, “O that’s just a birthmark. Sometimes we see those types of birthmarks on Asian babies.” Just leave out the “Mongolian” all together.
So what’s stopping her?
What’s stopping us?
~ Sharon Chang, originally posted at Multiethnic & Multiracial Asian Families