“Mongolian Spots”

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?

Um, no.

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.

(Image source)

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.

 

(Illustration source)

 

In his On the Natural Variety of Mankind, he mapped a hierarchical pyramid of 5 human types (founded on the description of human skulls):

 

  1. the Caucasian, Caucasoid, or “white” race
  2. the Mongolian, Mongoloid, or “yellow” race
  3. the Malayan or “brown” race
  4. the Ethiopian, Negroid or “black” race
  5. 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

Comments

  1. Joe

    Thanks, Sharon, for the excellent post. Blumenbach actually invented the racist term “Caucasian,” and the reason was that he thought the people of the Caucasus were the most beautiful of the (white) European peoples. So it too is a racist term that everyone one needs to know the source of — and not use. I see too that Morton is getting celebrated these days in books and articles as the great founder of certain academic disciplines — in spite of his Nazi-like racist views and founding work in scientific racism….. Why cannot whites, esp. white elites, in this society ever deal well with accepting a critical history of our racist past, apologizing for it, and changing the way we celebrate it — those are modest first steps?

  2. AthensJ

    “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).”
    I’m sorry, but this is not correct at all. In all 4 of the citations you provided, not once are the words “Mongol” or “Mongolian” even mentioned in a negative or racist context. I even checked other sources (I work in a large University Library) and have yet to find any reference to “Mongol” or
    “Mongolian” being used, as you say, “in a negative manner”. Now it is true that Blumenbach coined the term “Mongolian”, but that does not mean that anyone since then has largely used it in a negative manner. If all of the english words that were invented by white supremacists were inherintly racist, then the majority of the English language would be racist. Language, though, is a function of how it is used. It is irresponsible to say that the words “Mongol” and “Mongolian” have been used “usually in a negative manner” when none of the sources you cite even hinted that. Maybe you should start fresh with your research.
    You are right about the term “Mongoloid”, however. For a long time, it has been used to refer to someone who has Down’s Syndrome or is mentally disabled, and from what I’ve found there are several racist connotations.

    It’s strange that the term “Mongolian spots” would have offended you before you knew its’ history, especially considering the fact that people from Mongolia refer to themselves as Mongolians. The man who coined the term “Mongolian spots” was not known to be a racist, but he obviously studied the works of a renowned anthropologist in asia who WAS obviously racist. I think it would have been strange had Balz NOT studied the work of Blumenbach.

  3. Sharon Chang Author

    Hi there. Thank you for your reply.

    I see you are wondering about my citations. To clarify, “The words ‘Mongol’, ‘Mongolian’, ‘Mongoloid’ were extensively used throughout European history since the 13th century usually in a negative manner” is a direct quote from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mongoloid. You can find it under the section entitled “Populations Included.”

    Yasuko Takezawa, Ph.D., http://www.janm.org/projects/inrp/english/sc_take.htm. wrote an excellent piece entitled “Problems with the Terms: ‘Caucasoid’, ‘Mongoloid’, and ‘Negroid’” http://jairo.nii.ac.jp/0019/00121668/en. She refers to the troublesome history of “Mongoloid” under “Eurocentrism and Racial Terminology” in paragraphs 4-6. There she also writes on the connection between “Mongoloid” and a long-standing European fear of the Mongols, or Mongol Empire. Indeed there is much historical documentation on the ferocity of the Empire and the terror it evoked.

    In his article for the Globalist “Europe’s Fear of Asia” http://www.theglobalist.com/StoryId.aspx?StoryId=4472, Jack Weatherford further shows how the fear on Mongols led Europeans to rationalize theories on Asian inferiority. So the negative connotations of “Mongol” and “Mongoloid” have deep roots.

    I agree with you that language is a function of how it is used and context is very important. For example, calling someone Mongolian when they are actually from Mongolia makes complete sense. In this case however, the trouble with “Mongolian Spots” is that it is DERIVATIVE of Mongoloid – which is linked to a painful and discriminatory history of racism towards Asian peoples. It is not a reference to the people of Mongolia and it is used to label children who are not Mongolian. Using Blumenbach’s 5 races, would we allow “Negroid spots” or “Negro spots” by our medical professionals?

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