“Do you have any birthmarks?” a coworker behind me randomly asked aloud.
My ears perked up and I turned my chair around to face his general direction. It was a boring day in the office, as per usual, and any distraction was a welcome reprieve from the dull monotony of the job.
The open concept space meant that pretty much everyone heard his query; taking a short break from typing away at their computers, his teammates rushed to respond.
“Yeah, I have one on my hand,” said his buddy next to him, pointing to a tiny, discolored dot on his wrist. “It’s small though, so it’s really hard to see.”
“I don’t have any,” replied another.
“I don’t either – that is, I used to have one, but now I don’t,” added another as he stood up out of his chair. “It used to be right here on my back,” he said, pointing to his lower lumbar area at the very end of his spine, “but it disappeared when I was like two or three years old.”
“What? That’s not possible,” said the coworker who asked the question. “How does that even happen? Maybe you had something else, like a disease?”
“No dude, it’s because I’m Asian,” the owner of the disappearing birthmark protested. “It’s called the Mongolian Spot. A lot of Asians have it. If you have one, it means you’re related to Genghis Khan.”
“Wait, really? Where did you hear this?” I asked. I’d never encountered this before, and I felt like something that fascinating couldn’t just be left in the dust by a random change of topic.
“My mom told me. She says this birthmark is really common among Asians and, if you have it, you’re one of Genghis Khan’s direct descendants. It always disappears when you get older though.”
Still unsure about the veracity of his claim, I went home and asked my Korean-American husband about it.
“Oh yeah, that’s the story at least,” he verified that evening. He, too, pointed to his lower back. “I had it when I was a kid, but it disappears over time. It looks kind of like a bruise but it’s not one. It’s a birthmark, but a blue-ish one.”
The story, if true, seemed to make sense based off my comically limited experiences; I was two for two with Asians and anecdotal accounts of Mongolian Spots with no other non-Asian people I had encountered that day mentioning ever possessing one. And with something like 8% of Asians from the former Mongolian empire claiming Genghis Khan as their ancestor, the spot’s prevalence (and backstory) seemed plausible; still, I wanted to know more. Was there merit to the legend?
As it so happened, the origin story I’d been told initially seemed to check out; one site recounted a tale about Genghis Khan who, as a baby, acquired the blue-ish spot after being slapped in the lower back area to help him start breathing. The spot stuck, and he would pass that onto his sons, who would pass it onto their children, and so on and so forth.
Okay, so that’s cool, if my husband had the Mongolian Spot, the Khan estate should be calling us up any day about his inheritance, right?
Unfortunately, that’s where my research hit a snafu; further digging uncovered that the Mongolian Spot may not be exclusive to Khan’s progeny, as other racial groups, such as Africans/African-Americans and Native Americans, also seem to have instances of the blue-ish birthmark. Even some Caucasians have been known to express the infantile discoloration, although this is rarer for those of us who suffer from a melanin deficiency.
Upon this discovery, a multitude of other cultural references started popping up from other ethnic groups as well — in one First Nations group, they are referred to as “bear paws”. In Japan, saying that “someone has a blue butt” conveys that the person in question is immature or inexperienced; a similar colloquialism exists in central Mexico, preferring the color green to blue. And in my husband’s Korean culture, a folktale states that a shaman spirit of childbirth called the Samshin halmi will slap the baby’s butt in utero to force it out of the mother’s womb.
After establishing that the birthmark existed in peoples of the American continents, it didn’t seem likely that the spot could be of Mongolian origin alone. So how did the term come to be?
According to “The Amazing Language of Medicine: Understanding Medical Terms and Their Backstories“, the term was actually coined by German anthropologist Erwin Baltz. In 1883, he was living in Japan with his Japanese wife and their two children, serving as physician to Emperor Meiji and the Imperial household. When he found the spots on the babies who were under his care, he decided to call them “Mongolian Spots”, referring to a now-outdated take on race which classified Asians as “Mongoloids” popularized by Johann Blumenbach.
Blumenbach’s name might not sound familiar, but his work is talked about every single day — it’s Blumenbach who is responsible for introducing race-based classifications based upon geography, skin color, phrenology, and other general traits, dividing humanity into five distinct groups: Ethiopians (“Blacks”), Malays (“Browns”), Americans (“Reds”), Mongoloids (“Yellows”), and Caucasians (“Whites”).
Therefore, the naming convention on Baltz’s part indicates that it may not have intentionally referenced Mongolians as we know them; instead, he was utilizing Blumenbach’s woefully inaccurate categorization system describing all people of Asian descent. The name stuck, but the meaning evolved, as the term “Mongoloid”, once used to refer to Asians, eventually fell out of favor. At some point, the name “Mongolian Spot”, now without its all-too-important context, needed a backstory, and the most obvious choice seemed to be one that hailed from the land of the Khans. One could speculate that people simply plugged a beloved folktale, passed down from generation to generation, in the racially-inspired term’s stead.
After climbing back out of that rabbit hole, I started to realize that, while the origin story may have existed before Baltz was a twinkle in his father’s eye, the name he gave it seemed… tainted. Could I continue to refer to it as a Mongolian Spot, knowing the meaning behind it?
That’s what Sharon Chang of the MultiAsian Families Blog asked of herself as well, ultimately determining that the name was unacceptable:
“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 [delivery room] nurse [who first identified the birthmark as a ‘Mongolian Spot’] 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 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, ‘Oh that’s just a birthmark. Sometimes we see those types of birthmarks on Asian babies.’ Just leave out the ‘Mongolian’ all together.”
So what do we call them, then?
Aside from straight-up referring to them as “birthmarks”, the medical term, congenital dermal melanocytosis, may also be used to describe the blue-ish mark, even if it is a mouthful. It also more accurately explains what it is through its scientific name — “flat bluish-green, gray or light brown areas where cells called melanocytes have been trapped in a layer of the skin called the dermis.”
Before researching this topic, I thought I’d find some fascinating stories about Mongolian warlords and modern day Asians, linked together through a shared haplogroup. And while the story I found was by no means uninteresting, it was certainly disappointing. The birthmark, no longer necessarily an indicator of relation to Genghis Khan, struggled for neutrality in my mind, but the damage had been done — I could no longer think of the marking without remembering the racist connotations behind its layman term.
I’m sure my old coworker, my husband, and every other Asian who’s ever heard the origin story of the Mongolian Spot will live to see another day even if they should stumble upon this article. But what I’d like to impart is to always question why something is done a certain way. This may be just one instance of vestigial racism, casually unearthed after inquisitive Google searches, and may not pose any tangible harm. But dig a little deeper into anything — laws, policies, and mannerisms — and you may uncover something big, something powerful, and something that definitely needs to be changed.
This may have been just a spot, but the process of discovery, calling something out, and altering language/behavior to reflect a more educated viewpoint is something that should happen for any situation, big or small, and it is up to us to get started.
Feature Image via Vimeo