Sensitivity Readers: Myths Debunked

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A Virginia Governor's party has asked him to step down due to appearing in blackface and posing next to a friend wearing a KKK costume at a party in the 1980s.

A beloved action star is known for his revenge-themed movies admitted to an interviewer that he had once prowled the streets for "any" black man in order to make someone pay for the assault on his dear friend. (He later sought treatment).

A popular author is about to release a novel set in the future, but suddenly asked that it be pulled after an uproar on social media regarding her character's offensive stereotypes. 

Some may say that we have reached an oversaturated tipping point when it comes to political correctness and self-expression, while others have likened it to the #MeToo movement and appreciate wrongs being made right.

It is from within this climate, that sensitivity reading have become a booming business. 

Kiera Drake, the author of the controversial book, The Continent, explains: 

 “Sensitivity readers are no different from any other editor. If a publisher or author wants to enlist the services of such an editor, they can do so, for a price. It is optional. If an author does not care to do it, a sensitivity read is not done. In any case, none of the suggestions provided by sensitivity readers are forced on an author. Which brings me to an important point: There is a material difference between criticism and censorship."

Sensitivity readers (also known as diversity editors and targeted beta readers) are simply another tool in the content-creator's tool belt.

An author, publishing company, marketing department, gaming company, etc. may not have the personal experience or background needed to create characters unlike themselves. They would then reach out to a Sensitivity Reader to review the material for unintentional bias, misrepresentation, or stereotypes. The Sensitivity Reader would read the material, then submit a report. It is up to the creator of the content to decide which suggestions to use, if any.

This practice is seen as controversial as it is a relatively new service that can be misunderstood. Some take issue with the word "sensitivity," which to them, indicates hypersensitivity. While that may be true in a small number of circumstances, most times it is not. Often, sensitivity readers bring up legitimate concerns.

A few examples that sensitivity readers come across on a frequent basis are:

  • Describing a minority character only by their skin color while describing white characters with well-rounded adjectives

  • Having all minority characters speak broken English or urban vernaculars

  • Having all minority characters living in poverty

  • Having all minority characters on drugs or abusing alcohol

  • Has a “white savior” coming to the rescue of the minority communities

None of these examples are purposely malicious, but they can still create a misrepresented and harmful picture. 

Conscientious content creators understand this and hire sensitivity readers as a second opinion; a clear eye on the subject they know well, (while still maintaining their creative control and final say so).

Sensitivity readers can be minorities, little people, those from a certain religious group, part of the LGBTQ community, differently abled, mental illness expert, have lived in poor communities, experienced homelessness, or have any other sort of insight from their experience.

Not all books, manuscripts, and scripts need sensitivity readers. However, the service is there and available to those who choose to make use of their valuable knowledge. 

Content creators simply treat sensitivity reads as another resource.

Have you ever used a sensitivity reader? Think you may need one? Why or why not? Tweet me your thoughts @PWilliamsMarks