Ask Lisa Advice: Hope You had a Culturally Appropriate Halloween!

This week I counsel the Mom of a Chinese Daughter whose White Neighbors dress up as “Chinese Princesses” for Halloween.

This column, though it comes two days after Halloween, is nonetheless devoted to that sweet and terrifying holiday we just survived. This question came in on Monday, too late to change costumes, but these discussions about Cultural Appropriation never go out of season.

Dear Lisa

I am very upset with my neighbor. She has two daughters, four and six and I have one who is five. Though we are not very close—we have different politics and parenting styles–The girls play well together and we were planning to take them trick or treating together. I forgot to mention: my husband and I are White and adopted our daughter from China. Our neighbors are White as well. Both of the other girls are very blond and blue eyed. The problem is that my neighbor is going to dress her daughters as Chinese princesses for Halloween. I told her I objected because I feel that these costumes are disrespectful to my daughter and the culture of her birth.

My neighbor poo-pooed my concerns, saying the costumes were harmless and that my daughter should feel “celebrated.” I made the decision that I am taking my daughter to trick or treat with her cousins who live in another town. This solves the awkwardness of having to explain to my daughter why she can’t trick or treat with her friends, but it does not help me with my neighbor. I can’t see myself spending time with her again. Should I let it go or confront?


Dear Stewing,

I don’t blame you for being furious with your neighbor. You mention that she has different politics and a different parenting style, but that doesn’t mean you can’t explain to her why the consumes bother you. I’d wait until you are not stewing and give it another shot. The two of you may not be bosom buddies, but it sounds like the girls are friendly. It can be a gift to have friends your age living so close by. That’s why I think you owe it to your daughter to set a limit with their mother for the sake of clearing the air.

Now I’m going to get on a soap box for a bit.

The Halloween/cultural appropriation question has been around for ages, far longer than the phrase “cultural appropriation” itself. Some folks—usually those whose culture is not being appropriated, imitated or satirized—see it as harmless: kids dressing up for fun to collect candy. “What’s the big deal? We played cowboys and Indians our whole childhoods and no one batted an eye.” (Probably because you didn’t know any Indians, dear.)

Others—members of the cultures being parroted and their allies—see it as hurtful, insensitive mimicry.

Let’s unpack what it means to put on a costume in the first place. By dressing up as a specific individual—George Washington, for example, or Cyndi Lauper—a child might be expressing admiration for an idol. Dressing up as a cartoon character is a celebration of that character’s silliness—see Homer Simpson—or valor—see Wonder Woman. Even dressing up as a villainous or widely loathed icon—be it Voldemort or Richard Nixon—is a wink to the world, relishing a recognizable figure’s infamy.

There’s also the option of dressing up as some-thing rather than someone. Something cute: a bunny, a panda or a Teletubby. Something frightening (which is actually the point of Halloween last I checked): a demon, a vampire or a Dementor. Something absurd, like my neighbor’s daughter who went as a pancake breakfast one year and a toilet another.

You run into trouble, however, when you dress up as some-thing that represents a group of some-ones. I don’t mean professional groups—police officer, postal worker, cow herd, circus clown, ballet dancer, farmer—these “people” costumes are fine because they are so general. Anyone of any race, religion or description can be a member of those groups.

What’s problematic is dressing up as a member of an ethnic, racial or cultural group that is not yours, especially one that has been historically denigrated.

For clarification:

Things/Creatures/Specific Characters (okay)

People (not okay)


Native American

Harry Potter

Black Person


Chinese Person


If your neighbor tells you that her daughters love and admire Chinese people, that sounds lovely, but which Chinese people—and why? You can tell her that she may not realize it, but costumes like the ones she’s chosen objectify a group of people who have experienced racism throughout our country’s history. She might say, “But Asian people are so beautiful. It’s a compliment.” Yes, it is a compliment on one hand, but it also fails to acknowledge Asian people as individuals. And why those specific costumes? What era in Chinese history do they represent? My guess is that she has no idea. She may or may not see your point.

The same rule goes for people who dress up as Indians because they “admire them so much.” One might ask: “Which tribe is it that you admire so much?” “Which tribe does that costume represent?” “The screeching and waving a tomahawk? This is in homage to which Native culture exactly?” They don’t know? Tell them to skip it and try a nice My Little Pony suit.

But wait a minute, Lisa! What about dressing up as a Dutch Milkmaid or an Austrian yodeler?

My honest answer? The “Dutch Girl” and “Lederhosen Boy” are stereotypes too. They make me squirm as well. Personally, I would discourage my child from depicting these cultural images unless they had Dutch or Austrian ancestry. (Okay, technically I do have geographic Austrian ancestry, but I doubt my Austrian Jewish forbears yodeled.)

When in doubt, try the checklist again:

Things/Creatures/Specific Characters (Okay)

People (Not okay)

Sponge Bob

Dutch Girl


Austrian Boy


Granted, since there is no spirit of racial hatred behind the above European caricatures, they are far less loaded than those I mentioned earlier. Dutch and Austrian people have not been deemed less than human or widely denigrated the way Native Americans, Asians, Blacks and other people of color have been throughout history. On the other hand, Italians, Irish and Jews, all of whom are now largely considered “White,” were not thus acknowledged until the middle of the last century. Negative stereotypes of other Europeans, such as Poles and Russians abounded as well.

Therefore, I vote for holding off on all ethnic/national/racial Halloween costumes for now. There is, after all, so much else to wear. Excuse me while I slip into my Zombie costume.

Trick or Treat


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