What is a Sensitivity Reading?

Within the past few months, you may have read about “sensitivity readings”. During a sensitivity reading, reviewers seek to find any potentially inappropriate, misguided, flat, offensive, etc. content about a “sensitive” topic. Despite the implications of the term "sensitvity reading", the aim isn’t to censor writing but to make it more authentic.  


Sensitivity Reads Explained

To better explain, sensitivity readers review manuscripts to ensure characters of various

  • Cultures
  • Religions
  • Races
  • Genders
  • Disabilities (physical and mental)
  • Disorders / diseases
  • Life stages (ageism)

that are perhaps not familiar to the author are represented authentically. Does that mean you can’t write about controversial topics or have a character that’s biased or racist or write about a community or culture that has biases? No way! In fact, having writing about such issues is how people learn about others and how we grow as a society.

"Usually stories told about Native Americans have been told from the POV of the westerner, and I don't mean the western character, I mean the western author." Photo credit: Chrissie Kremer via Unsplash

"Usually stories told about Native Americans have been told from the POV of the westerner, and I don't mean the western character, I mean the western author." Photo credit: Chrissie Kremer via Unsplash

When I explained this concept to my husband, I put it this way—think of how many clichéd portrayals there have been of Native Americans, especially in the Western genre. Because he’s part Native American, I felt my husband could understand this. Usually, stories about Native Americans have been told from the POV of the westerner, and I don’t mean the western character, I mean the western author. Authors have an obligation to fairly represent all characters in their writing.

For example, during a recent webinar on sensitivity reading, the speaker described a book she edited where there was an employer was racist. He had a Latina employee. The speaker said she made sure that the dialect / dialogue, actions, and plot where appropriate for how a Latina might actually respond in that situation. The goal was to make the writing and the characters behave authentically. The goal was not to remove any offensive story elements potentially stemming from a racist employer character.


Is Lack of Authenticity Really an Issue?

They sat there, stone-faced, shocked that such could make it to publication without anyone saying, "Um, I don't think they were that happy, guys." Photo credit: John Bakator via Unsplash.

They sat there, stone-faced, shocked that such could make it to publication without anyone saying, "Um, I don't think they were that happy, guys." Photo credit: John Bakator via Unsplash.

In publishing, lack of sensitivity or more palatably, authenticity, can be costly. Recently, a children’s book about George Washington was pulled from the shelves after illustrations of enslaved African-American characters were depicted as smiling and seemingly having a good time. Eyebrows up. Yeah, I know. Who signed off on that idea? I can only assume that they allowed it because they felt it was more important to protect children from the ugliness of slavery.

Who in their right mind would do that? After all, if a kid is old enough to read about George Washington, they’re old enough to know what happened. I’m not saying they should graphically illustrate the abuse…I’m just saying they shouldn’t show enslaved African-Americans as smiling. We can all agree on that, I think.

So, the publisher lost printing costs as well as distribution costs among other costs. In an already struggling industry, that’s a bummer. I’m sure the publisher and editors weren’t trying to offend. The problem is that most of the publishing industry is dominated by white, heterosexual females who may have legitimately thought that preserving children’s innocence was more important than a more accurate portrayal of African-Americans during that period.


What Do Sensitivity Readers Look For?

As you can see, accurate portrayals are things that sensitivity readers look for. Other things may include:

"So, I'm like integral to the plot, right? I'm not just a token minority character because that's not how diversity works." Photo credit: Alexis Brown via Unsplash

"So, I'm like integral to the plot, right? I'm not just a token minority character because that's not how diversity works." Photo credit: Alexis Brown via Unsplash

Characters who don't conform to stereotypes are more interesting anyway. Look for ways to make your characters unique. If it happens to be fitting for your character to do something that might be considered "stereotypical", make sure it works naturally into the story and isn't forced.

Characters who don't conform to stereotypes are more interesting anyway. Look for ways to make your characters unique. If it happens to be fitting for your character to do something that might be considered "stereotypical", make sure it works naturally into the story and isn't forced.

  • Gazes: A gaze is the lens through which the story is being presented from an author’s POV (not the character). The white gaze is the easiest-to-understand example. In such a book, you have a work written by a white author. Characters are described with white features like blonde hair or blue eyes, which is fine; however, when a minority character is introduced, usually the color of their skin is included in their description. What’s more, subsequent mentions of that character typically include some kind of racially-identifying feature.
  • Token characters: These are minority characters written in purely for the sake of diversity.
  • Stereotypes: This could include the hot Asian girlfriend, the smart Asian, the strong-woman bitch, or the African-American who gets out of the hood by playing basketball, the redneck southerner, etc.
  • Authorial bias toward characters: This means that the author treats a character from a certain disposition as inferior because of their race, gender, etc.
  • Inaccuracies: The speaker mentioned that a book character with a certain genetic disability that impaired their ability to move “sat down” at a picnic table; however, it was pointed out that in real life, that character would not be able to easily “sit down”. 

Readers typically look at the dialogue, plot, and character description when reading for authenticity.


Who are Sensitivity Readers?

As for who can be a sensitivity reader, anyone can. Sensitivity readers are like beta readers (in fact, another name for them is “targeted beta readers”). They read purely for authenticity. Your editor can do some sensitivity reading as well. By that I mean they can point out any instances they feel could cause problems as part of routine copyediting.

"Look for readers who represent the characters you're writing." Photo credit: Anthony Tran via Unsplash

"Look for readers who represent the characters you're writing." Photo credit: Anthony Tran via Unsplash

If seeking a beta reader, look for readers who represent the characters you're writing. Find people from a certain region if you’re writing about characters from a given region or who are members of a certain religion or who have had certain life experiences.

For example, I could read from the POV of a Caucasian female, a southerner / southern female, a person who’s had an eating disorder, and a person who’s lost a child. If they wanted to, anyone could be a sensitivity reader; though, there’s a huge lexicon of terms and concepts you’ll want to be abreast of if that’s a service you legitimately want to get into. A reading from an experienced professional typically costs between $250 and $500.

If you're interested in learning more about sensitivity reading or becoming a sensitivity reader, these are some starting sources:

This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of information. You can also follow the hashtag #OwnVoice on Twitter to see what the concerns of readers who share the identities of diverse characters think.

To wrap it up, in a nutshell, the goal of sensitivity reading is to ensure authenticity. Such isn’t necessary in all writing; however, when it is merited, it could potentially spare the author from publishing something that might blemish his or her reputation. Importantly, as an author, you are the one who determines whether or not to heed the advice of a sensitivity reader should you solicit such.


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Not every manuscript needs a sensitivity read, but every manuscript does need to be edited. If you’ve written or are writing a book and would like to have it edited, contact me, Vonnie York, at Creative Editing Services.