There's been quite a lot of debate recently on sensitivity reading. Especially on social media such as Twitter where the #WritingCommunity congregates. Questions like, do you need a sensitivity reader? Or "why read it if you're that sensitive?" arise. I've even seen someone, a prolific writer state that having a sensitivity reader would in turn make the writing boring. Imagine my surprise!
Sensitivity readers are valuable tools that all writers need to be aware of. And while not every writer needs to hire one, most do, especially those who write long form work. Or at least include it in your contract with your publisher. While an entire array of reasons exist as to why sensitivity readers are valuable, I can't possibly write all of them and expect you to read such a long list. So, I am shortening to the 5 I think most important in accordance with my experience.
First of all, what is sensitivity reading? Sensitivity reading is when a professional looks at content for stereotypes, offensive content and overall representation. Sensitivity reading looks at more than just if diverse perspectives are presented in a body of work, but how they are presented as well. No representation in many ways is better than poor, incorrect or unethical representation.
You need a sensitivity reader if:
You are writing diverse identities.**
You are writing about a body difference, disability or chronic illness with which you or no one you are close to is familiar with.
You are using culturally significant words/phrases in your manuscript.
You are writing about religious practices.
You are writing a book with the intent to educate.
Now, let me explain.
Any time that you write a book where the characters do not look like you, it is best to get outside feedback. Why? So that you can get things right. If you have wavy hair but your characters have thick and curly or coily hair yet it never gets tangled even though they live in contemporary society, it isn't believable. But on a deeper note, if you are writing about something that is important to an entire group of people, you need to have your facts straight. And sometimes Google won't cut it.
How many times have I seen the villain is ugly or has a scar? Or the unlovable character is fat? Or maybe they are lovable in a cute sidekick way but not a romantic way? How many times have those with chronic illnesses been thrown into the pitiful seat, where they are incapable of agency and being opinionated? Those generalizations are dreadful to read and for people who ascribe to those identities it is harmful to see.
If you decide that you want to use cool-sounding words and do a quick search online for some, be sure to check for cultural significance. I believe that there is a character in the Star Wars universe whose name is in Hebrew and her father's name is Adonai, literally the Hebrew word for Lord. Can you see how this would be in poor taste? Sure to you it might just be a cool-sounding name or word, but let's not appropriate or misuse culture. This goes into the next one a bit too.
Most books, even high fantasy, have the essence of some sort of religion in them. Whether it is a shunned religion, one the character doesn't practice or maybe it isn't verbally spoken at all. Maybe there are just rituals that are performed or tasks that are to be completed by the characters. However, many such tasks have religious undertones. If you are using religion, a sensitivity reader can help you hone in on what religions are being centered, what can be perceived negatively and help you through next steps.
Lastly, any time you are writing with a didactic intent, you need to hire a sensitivity reader. This is where culturally responsive education comes into play. Representation is important, but representation for the sake of it will never do. A reader can always tell when a character is being tokenized. Additionally, readers can tell when a character was thrown in with little thought just for diversity points. Culturally responsive education helps the writer to pinpoint and make sure that the information presented is unbiased, factual and that those presented are done so in an equitable way.
Remember what I said earlier about how it can be better to not include diverse narratives than to do it poorly? This is extremely true when it comes to texts for education purposes. You can give 10 pages to each culture but if one culture is centralized and the others seen as outliers, you aren't being equitable. And it is time to find a sensitivity reader.
**Here's a caveat. If you are not a person of color, you should never be writing from the first person point of view of a person of color. You can use third person, they can be a member of your cast, however almost 100% of the time white individuals who write people of color get it wrong. Whether they show colorism bias, inaccurate portrayal of cultural events/symbols, or even if they simply frame things wrong, If this is you, I urge you to reconsider your manuscript. Allow people of color to tell their own narratives.
Don't believe me? Well, a very famous writer who happened to marry into a culture wrote a popular series in that culture. Said writer was white. Who was the hero, a fair-skinned and white-presenting member of society? Who were the villains? The dark-skinned evil beings from that cultures mythology. I won't go into how that writer completely ignored the mythos of those creatures though. Bias is present even in this bestselling series!
Have you ever used a sensitivity reader? If so, did you take what they said and incorporate their feedback or did you leave your manuscript as is? Has this post changed your views on sensitivity reading at all? Let me know in the comments.