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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Representation and Racism in Fairy Media

 I am planning to write a full length article on this subject, however I wanted to offer a brief overview here because I feel like this is an important subject that deserves discussion. This represents my off the cuff thoughts on the subject, with the longer, citation-full article to come.

I've spoken out against racism in various areas, from Irish paganism to Asatru to folklore, but one area that I've found it to be pervasive and often unaddressed in relates to fairies, across 19th and 20th century folklore and into modern media. Despite diversity in folkloric accounts and anecdotal accounts when you ask most people in Western culture to describe a fairy or elf they don't picture this:

'Persephone' by Ashley Bryner, used with permission

But something more like this:

'Little Fairy Girl' by Janny Sandholm, public domain

A Google image search returns results that are mostly inline with the second image and only a handful like the first. The covers of most urban fantasy books featuring fairies or elves also tend to largely show pale characters. Role playing games and the book series associated with them have historically played on the racist association of white with goodness and black with evil, giving us for example the black-skinned Drow elves who are described as being utterly evil and in thrall to an equally evil black-skinned spider goddess. This ingrained idea has created an environment that can be subtly or overtly unwelcoming to people of colour who are interested in fairies which is exactly why it must be addressed.

While there is a valid argument that anecdotal accounts in folklore often reflect the demographics of the populations experiencing them folklore is a diverse and varied thing which also includes an array of beings that break out of any stereotype. We see Western European fairies with green skin as well as literal white*, fairies that are blue, grey, red, and black. Anecdotal accounts into modern times reflect this as well with people mentioning seeing fairy beings with many different skin and hair colours. And of course fairies that are not human-shaped at all. 

Why then does popular culture persist in seeing fairies as normally light skinned and often fair haired? The short answer (which will be expanded in the longer article) is that the Victorians had some ingrained notions of the [false] superiority of Western Europeans and their descendants over everyone else. This was expressed in fairylore through theories by scholars of the time that supposed the origins of fairies in primitive, dark, pygmy cultures and habitually depicted the more agrarian fairy beings as small and dark and the more noble fairies as tall, pale, and stereotypically Teutonic in appearance. This idea became embedded in the fiction that grew out of that time period, reflecting the author's biases and assumptions rather than older folklore and anecdotes. 

We are starting to see an encouraging diversity in artwork, such as the first example in the post, particularly on platforms like Deviantart, but mainstream art lags behind. Still its encouraging that imaginative fairy art is becoming more diverse and that images are getting out there that show fairies as more than just pretty white people in Renn Faire attire. In-roads have also been made in the realms of role playing games, with the recent move by Dungeons and Dragons to reclassify the so-called evil species and the idea of moral alignment so that morality and evil are completely removed from skin colour in game. Fiction has also started to show more variety in fairy depictions and to embrace the idea that this variety is a good thing.

Change can be a slow process but things are definitely moving in a better direction. Fairy fiction, comics, and role playing games are for everyone, as is a general interest in the subject, and the media we consume must reflect that. Hopefully going forward it will.  

*not the term used for fair skinned humans but white like bleached bones or clouds


  1. I did some research on fairy lore. Africa has no fae tradition. The Cherokee, Caddo, and other Native American tribes do have one.

    In short, there is no reason for urban fantasy and shadowrun-esque elves and fae to be white. But the Tuatha de Danan? As pale as those of us who created them.
    That's how it always is, gods and spirits look like their worshippers.

  2. Africa absolutely has a fae tradition. Cf: azizas and madebele. Fairies are a world wide phenomenon.

  3. Great article! So glad I stumbled across it in my readings! Over the summer I remember wanting to make a video talking about elementals and such! Because I see them but I was nervous to say the least!I was Talking about imo the importance of these realms and how it can be empowering for you in your own endeavours just by knowing they are real!George ffloyd was headlines I felt this to add to my narrative and point of not letting hate drive us apart etc! It was why I was 'guided' to speak out at that time! But still I was hyperaware of the critique from all camps! "You are black why are you talking about 'white folklore /beliefs? You must have self hate" and then the "you are black what authority do you have speaking on such matters... I would see ppl say (not to me but online) stuff like 'you guys cry 'cultural appropriation' well stop appropriating our myths! elves etc are white stop inserting yourself or distorting our folklore for liberal pc means type attitude.....i'm like damnnn😳

    It is hard to wade in these waters but I am sticking to my guns lol! They are not human so I won't allow 'copy and paste' beliefs in the door! There is a difference between thoughtful, logical critique and blanket racist cognitive dissonance! With absolutely no wiggle room. Ilike to think I am a very respectful person and find it unfair but also rather sad. Thank you for your article 😊🌻

    1. Great article! It is outrageous to see racism insidiously infiltrating beliefs about the Fairies. It is infuriating to see the distortion of Fairy image, the vomit-inducing cuteness in images meant as propaganda for "white is better". Thank you for the great article and the effort of educating those of us who seek right balance in th relationship with Them and with other people.

    2. When you make your video please share a link here, I'd love to see it :)

  4. I found so many interesting stuff in your blog especially its discussion. From the tons of comments on your articles, I guess I am not the only one having all the enjoyment here! keep up the good work... mejores hospederias

  5. Africa has many fae-based traditions, including the aziza, the Bori, and the njuzu. If your research didn’t find any, then it’s woefully incomplete. Furthermore, declaring that a culture doesn’t “have” something after superficial observations contributes to racism.