Publishing, in recent years, has had a moment of reckoning. Available books haven’t reflected the range of experiences lived by people (aka, most protagonists are straight and white), so publishers were prodded to finally do something about it. As a result, they’ve actively sought manuscripts about diverse characters. This is great, but these stories haven’t all been told by people with diverse backgrounds. In this case, good intentions have led to some bad outcomes.
The fact is, everyone has blind spots. If you haven’t lived in the skin of another, it’s easy to downshift into stereotypes. Sensitivity readers are a potential answer to this problem. They’re beta readers who help authors identify and potentially fix those blind spots. If you’re looking to write about a character who has a different identity from you, this post will show you the importance of sensitivity readers.
Is it Necessary?
Some writers (and nonwriters) have complained that sensitivity readers are a form of censorship that feeds into cancel culture. Others worry that their creativity is hamstrung if they’re only “allowed” to write about people who look like and were raised in scenarios exactly like their own. Why shouldn’t a black author be able to write about Asian-American characters? Why shouldn’t a gay writer construct a straight character? Isn’t this an example of the thought police in action?
The counter argument is that aside from potential bad actors on social media or lazy commentators glomming onto an issue, few people want to censor artists. What people want is to see their lives accurately represented in fiction. It’s important for diverse characters to ring true because representation matters. The thought doesn’t count—cardboard cutout “boxes” have been checked for years. People want and deserve to see people who look like them and act like them in fiction. Getting it wrong perpetuates myths and prejudice. It also robs people (especially children) of the joy of being a main character instead of just a token.
Even authors with the best intentions can sometimes make mistakes if they’re writing from a perspective not their own. Some people argue that this is the point of creativity—fiction doesn’t have to be exactly the same as real life. It’s true that artists are welcome to use their imaginations to create, but it’s just as crucial to not make inadvertent mistakes. There’s no reason to when sensitivity readers can help you avoid them.
More than a Beta Reader
Subtle biases can have a negative impact, especially if the wider culture thinks that’s “how it is.” A classic example of this is the trope of the “happy slave.” The mammy figure (like in Gone with the Wind) is one that has circulated for a century. Listen, I love that movie for its arc, romance, and epic nature. However, I’m also able to separate its problematic politics from the story. The fact is, it does portray slavery with rose-colored glasses. It can be difficult for viewers to not accept that view as historically accurate, and that is the danger. The book was written in the 1930s, so times and awareness were quite a bit different then.
You, however, are a 21st century, modern writer. Surely you want to be accurate, thoughtful, and nuanced. Writing such characters will only make your work stronger. And, actually, there are no excuses anymore for racist portrayals—whether you “meant” them or not. A sensitivity reader can you help you identify these problems, and they can even offer solutions. This person can and should function as more of a diversity editor for you book, and they’ll ideally explain why what you wrote can be misconstrued and how you might improve. With that in mind, hiring a sensitivity reader isn’t to police yourself, it’s to make your writing better.