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  • Writer's pictureS. Yumi Yamamoto

Regarding Sensitivity Readers


Yes, this is going to be a post where I have very strong opinions.

The longer version of that shouting paragraph is this: the online platforms of writers are showing a huge divide in what is acceptable and unacceptable when we discuss representation and diversity in our books. Not all of us can even agree what that looks like. What we CAN agree on, however, is that what has been the standard for literally decades isn't working.

So, how do we go forward from here?

First, there is the obvious issue of agents and editors prioritizing Own Voices stories and ensuring that POC authors are being represented as massively as their white counterparts. It is also the job of the publishing industry to make sure that they are rejecting stories that are problematic (ie. maybe say no to the Nazi/Jewish romance set literally in the middle of WWII...) and give POC authors fair deals and fair advertisement. These are things that writers have by asking for for years at this point. While it's true that it's getting better, it's still not good. This is something that, for the most part, is out of a writer's hands. We can do our best; we can raise up Own Voices authors and books; we can hold our publishers to a higher standard, but it's up to the publishing industry to make those changes at their level.

Second, there is the problem of how we want our diverse representation to look. While obviously we don't want harmful stereotypes in our books, there's a question of what is harmful and how we can engage in harmful content that doesn't glorify the oppressor or fall into the trap of being a cliché. There are a lot of discussions about who should be allowed to write certain characters, what tropes we're tired of seeing, why "overused tropes, but make them all POC" is great, how to correct inherent bias, and a plethora of other topics that have nuance and very passionate voices. These discussions are not without push-back, nor does everyone agree on how to handle representation when the author themselves do not live those realities.

Right now, I'm seeing discussions about White authors not making any POV characters POC because they don't understand what it's like to be POC and no amount of research is going to make you understand. And frankly, White authors have historically gotten it wrong on so many levels that it's hurtful. Additionally, this often comes across as speaking over POC voices or making the characters more "palatable" for White audiences. This also takes up a slot in an agent's roster and/or a publishing house away from POC authors who have better authority to write about such things. My personal beef with "Memoirs of the Geisha" is a poignant example of this last part. Most people would rather love and accept the atrocity of a novel written by a White man rather than read an actual account of a geisha like "Autobiography of a Geisha" by Sayo Masuda published in English six years later (around the time the 'Memoirs' movie came out).

While I personally agree with the points, I also don't typically like to make sweeping gestures of "just don't do it". Here's why.

I was discussing a story that is its early stages with a White friend of mine. This will be her first novel, and she's trying to be as mindful and conscious about diversity as she can be. One of her characters has always existed in her head as mixed race, and she wanted to get my take on the character. Keep in mind that I only knew the bare bones of this world, what the story is, and who the character was. Not a word has been written, and so I could not base my opinions on anything but the 'sound-byte' version of these details.

Not going to lie, some of it sounded bad. Not "omg I can't be friends with you anymore" bad, but enough where I raised issues and asked more questions to get a better understanding of what she was doing. And, to her credit, the sound-byte version sounded a lot worse than what it actually ended up being.

We talked about what was happening on Twitter in the author/writer circles, and her biggest concern was making sure that she wasn't falling into stereotypes or harmful tropes. She had seen the same posts I had, and she was worried that she wasn't good enough. She didn't know how to talk about colorism or hair or about being mixed in the first place. Diversity wasn't a box to check, but she also didn't have the perspective enough to fully embody and realize the character.

That? That's a HUGE step in the right direction.

She was aware that she has faults. She was aware that she probably didn't have the words to express what she wanted to say. She was aware that people might perceive this as problematic, and she wanted to know how to avoid this in her writing. She asked me, a trusted friend who is mixed-race, to see if I had any initial issues. And even though I'm not the particular race she's writing about, this was a launching point into discussing how we experience the world differently. I could point her in the right direction towards people who are better qualified to talk about what it's like to live in a world that favors light skin.

However, eventually, we did have to discuss the current notion of "don't have POV characters that are POC if you're non-POC". This scared her the most because she had planned on giving the character some narrative sway. We went back and forth on this because, frankly, the easiest way to remain unproblematic is if she just made the character White. But that in itself is counterproductive because then she's not engaging in diversity at all. While it's still up in the air about what she wants to do in order to solve this problem, this is what my argument boiled down to:

  • You won't know what is and what isn't problematic if you don't ever get it on the page

  • If you never face your own inherent bias, you'll never learn or grow

  • If these are concerns, read broadly and then read specifically. If you want to be more aware of these issues, there are plenty of places to look within the POC communities that don't necessarily require you to talk directly and ask to be educated (eg. video essays and reddit threads). This research is invaluable to aspects beyond your writing

  • When you are ready to get an editor, make sure you get sensitivity readers as well. Beta readers and critique partners aren't necessarily equipped to look for issues regarding things like race, neurodiversity, and ableism

  • If you are writing about things that heavily rely on race (such as police brutality and Black Lives Matter), those are stories best left to Own Voices authors

  • Don't be ashamed of missing things. We all do. No matter who you are or what your background is, you have a limited perspective of the world. It's not anyone's fault because we are limited, fallible humans; but it IS your job to try your best and actively make you and your writing better

Two words that I found to be the most revealing about this last point are the words "normal" and "exotic". My friend used the word "normal" to describe a location when I asked "what kind" in order to get a better idea. I knew what she meant due to her background, but I had to point out that she didn't actually mean "normal". As soon as I said something, she was suddenly aware of why that word didn't make sense and the fact that she had made that careless error surprised her. This wasn't a malicious mistake; it was an accident made by someone who had about a thousand other things to think about and create while also trying to explain to her friend what she was talking about. She was trying to write from what she knew – what her world was like in real life – but she took for granted that I don't live where she does and thus I don't understand what's "normal" to her.

I made the same mistake years ago with the word "exotic". I had the embarrassing moment when my professor asked me why I used that word and what I meant by it. Trust me, when an award-winning Black author looks you in the eye and asks you what you mean by "exotic", you've fucked up. She was very kind about it, but I have never forgiven myself for being that stupid. I was describing a siren in a short story (where every word counts and carries weight), so I thought I was getting away with a shortcut because it was fantasy. I wasn't. I was lacking perspective and presenting it in a way that obviously showed my "White American Normal" ideology at the time. That word has never been the same for me, and neither has the way I see how people look at others. This was one of the key lessons for me in my writing journey, and it came in the form of one of the most humiliating mistakes I've ever made.

This is why we practice. This is why we make mistakes. This is why we engage our writing in ways we find uncomfortable. This is why we have critique partners and beta readers who give us other perspectives. This is why we draft dozens of times. This is why we strive to be better all the time.

This is why we NEED sensitivity readers when we're about to publish.

Recently, I saw a post that made my blood boil. Someone had suggested that "maybe we should use sensitivity readers", and the backlash that came at them was enraging. Everything from "but what about conservative sensitivity readers" to "so you're saying I'm not a trustworthy writer" to "this will make my writing bland" was so ignorant to what service sensitivity readers do and so arrogant to think that you'll never make a mistake.

All of us are limited humans with limited perspectives and limited abilities. There is no shame in asking for help. In fact, by hiring someone to fix your grammar and continuity errors, you are already admitting that you need help. Enriching your characters and giving them nuance doesn't make them bland. Yes, there should be efforts to give all perspectives accurate representation, but to assume that a dominant/majority perspective hasn't already been taken into account is ignorant and often not a conversation that books are engaging with. Political points can be avoided; racial ones cannot.

Skipping out on a sensitivity reader is like skipping out on an editor: you just don't do it if you care at all about your readers.

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