Ableist Word Profile: Mongoloid

Welcome to Ableist Word Profile, a (probably intermittent) series in which staffers will profile various ableist words, talk about how they are used, and talk about how to stop using them. Ableism is not feminism, so it’s important to talk about how to eradicate ableist language from our vocabularies. This post is marked 101, which means that the comments section is open to 101 questions and discussion. Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.

“Mongoloid” is a word which is used in several different senses. Today, we’re not concerned with the use in physical anthropology, describing individuals who fit within a prescribed set of physical characteristics, but rather with the use in reference to people with disabilities. Specifically, the term has been used historically to refer to people with Trisomy 21 (Down Syndrome), and more generally to people with developmental disabilities, although this usage is out of vogue at this point. Like many words historically used to talk about people with disabilities, it’s used today in a pejorative sense, in this case to talk about people with faces which are not conventionally attractive, especially if they are deemed intellectually inferior, “slow,” or obnoxious; “her mongoloid features,” “that mongoloid down in shipping.”

Using “mongoloid” to talk about someone with a developmental disability is offensive, which is why most people don’t do it any more. It’s also offensive to use it in the same way that people use “retarded.” Or to call someone a “mongoloid” because that person doesn’t match your ideal of physical beauty, intellectual rigor, or pleasant personality. In fact, if you’re not a physical anthropologist, it’s better not to use this word at all.

So, ready for the horrific origins of “Mongoloid”? It’s an archaic term for a racial group, referencing the Mongols; the term is retained in this sense in physical anthropology to discuss people of Asian, Native American, and First Nations ancestry. There are a number of physical characteristics which can be used to put people in this grouping. Since people historically noted that individuals with Trisomy 21 shared some of the facial characteristics associated with people in the Mongoloid racial grouping, they referred to the condition as “Mongol” or “Mongoloid Syndrome.” And people with Trisomy 21 were called…wait for it…Mongolian.

But there’s more! The man for whom Down Syndrome is named, John Langdon Down, claimed in 1866 that the facial characteristics of people with Trisomy 21 represented a genetic regression, because Caucasians should not have “Asian” facial features. The concept of “evolutionary throwbacks” was just starting to gain traction, and this is one of the many ugly ways in which it manifested (hello, racism, my old friend). Indeed, the idea that people with disabilities were “throwbacks” and “genetic regressions” was used as an argument for forced sterilization, institutionalization, and other abuses of people with disabilities well through the 20th century. (And such practices continue to go on today, although the reasoning for them may not be framed as bluntly as it once was.)

Wikipedia helpfully informs us that “use of the term ‘Mongoloid’ for racial purposes has therefore acquired negative connotations because of the connection with Down syndrome.” Thanks for that, Wikipedia.

So, in short: Don’t use “mongoloid.” I think this is a word which most of our readers cringe to see and hear, which makes it an easy word to avoid, since hopefully you’re not using it anyway. If you find yourself reaching for it, think about the person you’re describing, and think about what you really want to say. Do you want to say that someone’s annoying you because ou is having trouble grasping a concept? How about “Mary really seems to have difficulty grasping the right procedure for clocking out, can someone give her a hand?” as an alternative.

Do you want to use this term to describe someone with unusual facial features? How about…you just don’t comment on what other people’s faces look like?

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

18 thoughts on “Ableist Word Profile: Mongoloid

  1. Yes. Thanks for this post.

    In his paper “On the Ethnic Classification of Idiots,” J. Langdon Down actually came up with a whole bunch of racist classifications, including “Ethiopian” and “Malay.” And he doesn’t know what to do with black people who have Down Syndrome, because, according to his racial hierarchy “Mongolian” is more “evolved” than “African”–thus, his whole “Mongolism as racial regression” hypothesis falls apart.

    To me, Dr. Down’s ideas are a fascinating (if horrible) example of how conditions are not just discovered, but invented. Doctors’ descriptions are going to be influenced by their biases (their interest in “ethnography,” let’s say). These things have an effect on how they frame us, and what they notice.

    Dr. Tony Attwood once asked Hans Asperger’s daughter if his description of autistic kids was influenced by the T4 program and Nazism in general. His daughter said she thought he was. (This is in The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, for those playing along at home). And in light of Asperger’s focus on his patients’ strengths and writing that “for success in science and the arts, a dash of autism is essential,” perhaps he was trying to combat Nazi thinking that PWD led “ballast existences” and such. (Not that the strengths he noted don’t exist–but perhaps the political climate influenced how he wrote about those strengths).
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..*Squeak!* It’s open thread time! =-.

  2. Wikipedia is helpfully wrong; the Big Five racial group labels are problematic because they’re racist and were meant to be — when the terms were created they were done so with a very clear hierarchy (with the patently superior white northern European folks at the top, of course). They shouldn’t be used at all since they’re meaningless in any context that isn’t racist. Which doesn’t take away from the point made that the word under discussion today is both racist and ableist — you get double the offense for your effort!

  3. Double the impact, as it were. And, yeah, in case it wasn’t clear, that Wikipedia comment was dripping with sarcasm; Wiki’s refusal to even begin to discuss the racist history behind the Big Five is problematic in the extreme.

  4. The last time before this I heard anybody use the term “Mongolian” referring to facial features was when a professor assigned T. H. White’s “The Troll”–in it, the troll is a fearsome monster that eats women, and the narrator says it has “Mongolian” features and looked like a “perfectly normal golliwog”. I think I dropped the paper in shock because it was so obviously racist.

    No one else in the class thought it was problematic. But then, this was a class that simply could not understand how the experience of contracting a debilitating illness could have informed Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” or how public ugliness laws for PWD could be seen in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” so maybe I was hoping for a bit much.
    .-= Lis´s last blog ..How not to have Disability Awareness Month =-.

  5. I have never, until now, heard “Mongolian” used this way. I don’t know that it extends that far, or if I live in a box, because it is really common to hear the Chinese describe people from across the country according to region, so I am really used to “Manchurian”, “Canton”, “Huigar”, and Inner or Outer “Mongolian” as descriptors of the subtle variances in Mainland Chinese appearances. The connection was never made for me, so had I not read this, I may not have ever known the history, because my experience is completely formed by Chinese people in a Chinese classroom. How odd, but now I know. I wonder if that is just something that doesn’t make the translation well, because I also remember having to explain why using the term “Orientals” was not OK to one of my teachers. I guess language learning helps and hinders me…

    ETA: It is possible that this is some kind of institutionalized racism in China that I am not aware of, that doesn’t translate well at my level of understanding, which would not surprise me one bit.

    FYI, the military, when I enlisted, used the Big Five for classification (or some variant of it anyway). As in, I was completely stumped, and had to ask for help, because I am Native American, and it was, obviously, not an option. Some weird lecture later I was told that I am basically Asian and just to mark either Caucasoid or Mongoloid, neither of which really made sense to me.

  6. Thank you for this series, I appreciate a critical break-down of these terms. “Mongoloid” seems to be only very rarely used in English (sadly, I have heard it used in French, but I think its usage there is also declining), but the intersections of racism and ableism in its history are horrifying and important to note. One small wording that stuck my as awry, however, was the following:
    “Since people historically noted that individuals with Trisomy 21 shared some of the facial characteristics associated with people in the Mongoloid racial grouping, they referred to the condition as ‘Mongol’ or ‘Mongoloid Syndrome.'”
    I’d just like to point out that they didn’t “note” the similarities, they “perceived” them. Suggesting that they noted them seems to me to imply that that was a natural connection to make, which, as this post illustrates, was not the case but rather the offshoot of a unique, racist project of classification.
    I look forward to checking out more posts on this blog.

  7. When I grew up (here in German-speaking Switzerland) kids commonly used “Möngi”/”Mong”, abbreviations of “Mongoloid” (which was the clinical name for people with Down’s back then) as an insult, the way many English-speakers use “retard”. I didn’t like it even then, and I’m kind of hoping it’s not used anymore, although that’s probably hoping for too much. :/

  8. I thought usage of these terms was fairly rare, then I considered my stoner friends, who love to ‘mong out’.

    That was a really interesting post – I had wondered before the link between Down’s and the old racial classification. Now I know it references racial throwback ideas it’s even more outright offensive.

  9. Great post!

    I have vague memories of a movie a saw as a pre-teen in which the term “mongoloid” was turned on its had a bit.

    The protagonist was a young man with Down Syndromm, and throuhout the film, the term “mongo” was used as a slur against him and his girlfriend, who also had Down Syndrom. As far as I can recall, the movie ended with him telling the bullies of and then there was a dream-like sequence in which he and his girlfriend were part of a mongolean riders troupe. They looked like heroic figures, in historical costumes with broad swords and battle axes. Back then, I saw it as him turning the insult into something that made him strong, that enabled him to fight back.

    I wish I remembered the movie’s name, because I would love to check it out again, now that I am older and a little more educated on ableism.

  10. Halloween Jacqueline, you’re correct; that’s very problematic wording I used. “Perceived” was indeed the word I was searching for there. Thanks for bringing that up (sometimes I edit things so many times that my eyes start to glaze over, and I should have caught that, but didn’t).

  11. Any Glee watchers here?

    The show is rife with many ableist, racist, sexist, homophobic, fatphobic, etc. remarks by characters we are clearly supposed to judge for saying these things, but still – they’re in there all over the place.

    Anyway, there was a comment in a recent episode by the character Terri, the glee club teacher’s wife, that a pregnant teen’s frequent morning sickness was a good sign because it meant the baby wouldn’t be a mongoloid.

    I think that was the first time I’d heard the word used in that way in many years.
    .-= Rosemary´s last blog ..Feminism and Disability stuff =-.

  12. It was in fact that very episode of Glee which spurred me to write this post! And there will be some serious discussions about that show soon (to tide you over, Anna has a number of analyses of various episodes up on her website, and I have a number up at this ain’t livin’ as well).

    ETA: Added links. Silly me.

  13. I look forward to checking out the links and definitely to reading the series of posts here about it! I admit, I love the show. I can’t help it. I love musicals and teen shows and camp so much. But there is an awful lot of problematic crap in the show that makes me cringe. Sometimes it makes watching a show more enjoyable to watch it critically, and sometimes I want to brush away the critical lens and just enjoy it. I haven’t decided which way I’m watching Glee yet.
    .-= Rosemary´s last blog ..Feminism and Disability stuff =-.

  14. In the course of my Glee linkspam, I forgot to include this post by Karen Healey talking about the hinky stuff in the show and how different folks are viewing it. Here’s a teaser quote: “The thing I have noticed about Glee responses in the circles I frequent is that they seem to be divided into the people who see the hinky stuff and can’t stand the show because of it, but acknowledge that it also has fun and music and dancing, and the people who love the fun and music and dancing but acknowledge that there are hinky issues.”

  15. Interesting. I did not know that John Langdon Down specifically described things in terms of “regression”. This view was implicit in the Carrie Buck case; I’ve linked to that more than once on my blog, because very few people are aware of some of the issues (nor think it’s relevant, argh).

    I just ran across this blog yesterday, and have been enjoying this series!
    .-= urocyon´s last blog ..Some things I’ve been reading =-.

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