Words by Robert Conti
I was handing in my travel forms to Kyoto sensei towards the end of the day, and we indulged in light conversation before I was able to scamper away. He was telling me about his job, which requires him to keep ungodly hours so he can shut down and boot up the school. After a sufficiently awkward pause, he asked me what I did before I came to Japan. I told him I worked at a museum in New Mexico near my school, where we looked at Native American artifacts.
“Ah, American Indians, yes, they are like us, Mongoloids. We are the same,” was his contribution. I was a little confused about the appropriate response to such a comment, so I just smiled and said, “Yeah sure, Mongoloids!” and resumed making eye contact, alternating the inflection of my voice, and nodding, which I’ve been told you humans appreciate.
Apparently Kyoto sensei was repeating what he learned in college, and later, on Wikipedia, I was able to fill in some of the blanks that I had in my own head about that word. Mongoloid may sound like a particularly ugly breed of dog owned by people with long hair, or a member of a roaming band of horse-riding marauders in Central Asia, but it is actually neither of those.
The resurgence of natural science in Europe coincided with a re-introduction of Europe to the rest of the world, meaning that for the first time in quite a few years, the common white man would be exposed to all kinds of weird skin colors and face shapes. Experts in the emerging fields of zoology, taxidermy, craniometry, etcetera, all wanted to have the first crack at applying their newly discovered reason to the greater world order. It seems like no one was immune from the temptation to speculate, and a quick glance reveals more than a few analysis’ that seem jarring to our 21st century sensibilities.
“I believe that we only need to assume four races in order to be able to derive all of the enduring distinctions immediately recognizable within the human genus. They are: (1) the white race; (2) the Negro race; (3) the Hun race (Mongol or Kalmuck); and (4) the Hindu or Hindustani race. I also count among the first of these, which we find primarily in Europe, the Moors (Mauritanians from Africa), the Arabs (following Niebuhr), the Turkish-Tatars, and the Persians, including all the other peoples of Asia who are not specifically exempted from them in the other divisions.” – Immanuel Kant, Of the Different Human Races, (1777).
“It is a serious question among them whether the Africans are descended from monkeys or whether the monkeys come from them. Our wise men have said that man was created in the image of God. Now here is a lovely image of the Divine Maker: a flat and black nose with little or hardly any intelligence.” – Voltaire Les Lettres d’Amabed (1769).
“Lepers are remarkable for having strong venereal desires. This is universal among the negroes, hence their uncommon fruitfulness, when they are not depressed by slavery, but even slavery in its worst state does not subdue the venereal appetite, for after whole days spent in hard labor in a hot sun in the West Indies, the black men often walk five or six miles to comply with a venereal assignation” – Dr. Benjamin Rush, Observations Intended to Favour a Supposition That the Black Color (As It Is Called) of the Negroes Is Derived from the Leprosy
That last one was tough to choose. Benjamin Rush, physician and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, had other gems about wooly hair and big lips being somehow related to that disease where all your appendages fall off. Among these stellar contributions are skull measurements large and small, observations regarding the size of genitals, and a barrage of intelligence tests. These pseudo-scientific inquiries were pursued to validate a variety of motives, ranging from genuine curiosity, to what can only be surmised to be a fear that the author’s race was somehow not chosen by God. Notably, influential men like Arthur de Gobineau and Thomas Huxley popularized the use of the term mongoloid to describe the physical characteristics shared by the people from Eastern Europe, east through Asia up to and including the Americas; Huxley did more to secularize British education than any man and worked virtuously to advance the cause of science, while Gobineau had the misfortune of having his life work adopted by the Nazi’s.
The purpose of these quotations isn’t to ruin A Critique of Pure Reason for you (the 700+ boring-ass pages will do that). I am trying to show how in our recent history, the men we elevate as having been free thinkers in their time were just as affected by their social context as much as any other citizen of any other era. As much as we can look back at these observations and laugh, we have no idea what strange new morality will be righteous in 500 years, and we’d hate to be on the other side of the historical joke. Those that supposed they were part of the master race thought they were at the vanguard of human civilization. It would be a mistake to assume that our popular morality is universally true just because it is the most recent morality to take hold.
The term mongoloid was used in early attempts to describe people residing in various Central and East Asian countries.The word mongol conjured up images of terror and barbarity, associated with the tales surrounding the nomads turned conquerors who stretched their empire from Eastern Europe to Korea by the 13th century.
It was a generalization to say the least, as it came to refer to most Asian peoples and eventually the original inhabitants of the Americas. It was Georges Cuvier who used mongoloid in the context of organizing the world into races. The man who gave us the word Pterodactyl would say about the Mongolian race, “The Mongolian variety is recognised by prominent cheek-bones, flat visage, narrow and oblique eyes, hair straight and black, scanty beard, and olive complexion.” His description of the Caucasian race was less clinical, “The white race, with oval face, straight hair and nose, to which the civilised people of Europe belong and which appear to us the most beautiful of all, is also superior to others by its genius, courage and activity.” Now, mongoloid is used predominately by geneticists, wishing to track the common ancestry of the human race back across the Bering Strait. All other applications of the word proved to be purely based on visual observations.
To digress, I was making small talk with an eikaiwa teacher friend of mine, and I tried to list my various observations regarding Japanese women’s attempts to conform to Western standards of beauty. A glance though a magazine or a walk through your local Youme Town will reveal an array of products that will make your breasts bigger, whiten your skin, lengthen your eyelashes, and lighten your hair. I was lowering my voice, trying to make the collective efforts of these women seem scandalous and symptomatic of a greater societal decline. Interrupting my melodrama, she broke in, “Well, would you be attracted to anyone with short eyelashes and small breasts?” Which left me sputtering evasive nonsense like, “I like women who have natural beauty,” or “each race has a different aesthetic,” knowing, in my heart of hearts, that I have a very narrow definition of beauty.
So, in conclusion, Kyoto sensei was right, Japanese people and Native Americans can trace their ancestry to the same people, and share certain physical traits. And I’m grateful that scientists are no longer observing physical traits in humans with the aim of ranking them according to intelligence or beauty. But failing to make observations in the hopes of finding everyone equally beautiful or intelligent is confusing.