What’s a sensitivity reader and why are authors increasingly using them?
It’s the hiss I remember most. I heard it from three different friends, across three different countries, and it sounded the same in each. I had just told them I was writing a book about a black superheroine. The hiss was actually silent but I heard it all the same in the long, drawn-out pause. Followed by a cautious, “Are you sure?”
This wasn’t the most enthusiastic response for a new project, but I guess it was to be expected. My ass is lily white. My superhero’s ass is not. Even with the best of intentions, even coming from a family filled to the brim with non-white in-laws (thanks to my brother’s Aboriginal wife’s family) and hearing their stories about their experiences, I knew what my friends were saying—or not saying: Writing about black protagonists when you’re not can open up a world of potential to stuff it up.
Stuff It Up, Pay The Price
If you get it wrong, you can expect some well-deserved snark in a review or ten, slamming your book. If you get it badly wrong, you can expect to apologize for a long time and the backlash to follow you for the rest of your career.
And that is why I think many authors shy away from doing it. I imagine the unspoken view is that it’s all too hard including people of color (POC) in books and get it exactly right. It’s easier to just…not.
Why Not Only POC Authors For POC Stories?
I’ve heard the view that to be authentic, POC characters should be written about by POC authors. As in, ONLY POC authors. It’s true there would be no doubting the authenticity of these stories. Personally, I would love it if more non-white authors put pen to page. I think voices from every quarter of humanity—black, Asian, indigenous, Latinx, and everyone else—should be heard.
Readers who aren’t white would doubtlessly love to have the experience of picking and choosing which favorite POC author to read today. But, sadly, that option isn’t available. Fiction in general, and lesfic in particular, is still heavily dominated by white authors writing about white protagonists. Even minor characters tend to be whiter than white.
That’s a shame. If our world isn’t all white, why do so many of us write it that way? Even if you’re not game to go for a POC protagonist, why are there the wall-to-wall white secondary characters?
Getting It Right in Lesfic With Sensitivity Readers
If it all seems “too hard”, the solution seems obvious: Everyone should feel free to write about diverse characters, but use a sensitivity reader to get it right. No different to author research of any other type, you simply find someone with expertise in what you’re writing about. In this case, not being white in a white world. It takes ten seconds to put a call out on social media to find people willing to help.
Be aware some sensitivity readers will rightly ask to be paid like any other editors. If authors choose a beta reader as a sensitivity reader, which is usually free, acknowledging them in the credits is the very least the writer can do as thanks.
Wait, Aren’t Human Experiences Universal?
I’m sure some people think this is unnecessary or even overkill. Why bother, they think. People are people, just write about humanity and its common condition. No need for a special reader to tell you how exclusion and pain feels if you’re black or trans or another minority.
“Being part of the human race is a universal thing, but when discussing or writing about a particular culture it’s important to dig deeper,” KD says. “We all have individual experiences based on our culture and to gloss over or minimize that is very much an injustice.
“Culture, race, what have you, are all working parts of a whole person, and in writing, isn’t it an author’s duty to make them more than characters? I think so. I think our jobs are to make them more like people. I don’t mind being a sensitivity reader and other writers do that (too). I’m willing to keep doing it as time allows.”
Black Stereotypes and White Blinkers
So what might a sensitivity reader notice that an author could miss? The list is long. Authors might think they’re immune to unconscious bias because they’re close to colleagues or friends who are people of color. Or they might not even be aware they’ve absorbed stereotypes from the media until it’s pointed out. Welcome to the world of white privilege. In other words, we don’t know what we don’t know.
“With all we see on TV and the entertainment industry as a whole, it’s easy to create a character of color based on that alone,” KD says. “That’s the problem a majority of them are stereotypes like the sassy black woman; the angry black woman; the oversexualized black woman. Men fit into these categories too.
“I could go on. We are all that, aren’t we, at one time or another? But when a black character is reduced to snazzy one liners, snapping fingers, and so on without any depth, we notice. Who wants to read that when all you have to do is turn on the TV?”
Ask the Expert
In the end it comes down to this: Anyone who is a halfway decent human being can readily empathize with a person of color’s position, and even briefly put themselves into their shoes. But they can’t truly walk in them. Not really. They don’t really know.
So what’s wrong with asking someone who does?
Lee Winter is an award-winning veteran newspaper journalist who has covered courts, crime, news, features and humor writing. Now a full-time author and part-time editor, Lee is also a two-time Lambda Literary Award finalist and a double Golden Crown Literary Award winner. She has just published the superheroine novel Shattered with Ylva.
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