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?