Do We Need Sensitivity Readers?

by | Jun 6, 2018

This morning I was studying picture books. I read one about Bill Pickett, an African-American cowboy who invented bulldogging, one about Joy Chen, another about a famous singer and civil rights activist, Miriam Makeba. In each case I checked to see who wrote the stories. Were they African American? Chinese? Perhaps the illustrator was? One thing I noticed is that none of the books had photographs of the authors or illustrators. Then I noticed that I was paying close attention to the race of the author. Can’t always tell, granted. But then I also wondered, why does that matter? Who has the right to tell these stories?

I would argue that the goal, the most important goal, is to create more nuanced, richly developed characters from all walks of life. Who the author is (ie race/culture/gender identity) is not as important as whether they have done the work to understand the character and that character’s world.

None other than Jacqueline Woodson says essentially this same thing here:

Still, even putting in the work, there is a risk, when telling stories about a group you are not a member of, that you might get some things wrong; you might not know what you don’t know. There are minefields, including such actually published books such as a story that glosses over the horrors of the Indian Schools that tore Native American from their families and abused them in an effort to “civilize” them. Or the unfortunate book about a chef of George Washington’s that glosses over the cruel and inhuman history of slavery.

Hence the proliferation of sensitivity readers. Sensitivity readers will read a manuscript and flag things that are potentially culturally insensitive. For example, describing a character’s prosthetic leg as a fake leg, which a user of prosthetics never would. Or relying on one-dimensional characters, like the black friend who doesn’t have a dad or only plays basketball.

An article by Anna Hecker ( sums up what good sensitivity readers do: “rather than censoring my book, my sensitivity readers made it objectively better. By pointing out places where I’d unwittingly succumbed to stereotypes, they helped me create richer, more nuanced characters.”  (emphasis added)

And, isn’t that what we ALL are striving for?

Hecker adds, “Without red-lining specific words, they suggested new terms and topics I could research to make the details of my characters’ lives more authentic. Perhaps best of all, they opened up my eyes to my own ingrained bias in how I perceive and describe people of all races.

“While some may consider their role ‘fraught and subjective,’ I think we can all agree that multidimensional characters, fresh perspectives, and detailed, believable world-building all make for better books. They certainly did with mine—and with many others.”

People have worried that sensitivity readers are really censors in disguise. And I do think there is potential for sensitivity readers to become power hungry. Recently, someone who was a sensitivity reader for a manuscript then criticized the book publicly once published for issues she did not flag in her initial read. To me, this not only is grossly unfair to the author, it also does not help the reading community. If a sensitivity reader’s goal, like the author’s, is to create more multi-dimensional characters, then sensitivity readers should be open and transparent about their role.

To have more diverse books we need a more diverse group of authors, this is true. In addition to that, however, all authors need to get better at writing about people different from themselves. We all have unconscious bias and sensitivity readers, among others, can help us uncover those mistakes. Until we can identify our own biases clearly and objectively (a notoriously difficult task), we need sensitivity readers.

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