The Whole Thing About Sensitivity Readers

In response to the criticism towards the new young adult books The Continent and Carve the Mark, many people asked, “How could these novels go through so many eyes and not recognize the racist undertones?”

These novels fell under a backlash of criticism by Advanced Readers before they even hit the shelves. The portrayal of non-white races seemed to perpetuate assumptions about non-white cultures, presenting them as brutish and uncivilized. As publishers debated this response and what to do about them in the future, word got out that they were considering what is being called Sensitivity Readers, hired to scan certain books for potential racist or sexist overtones.

But some authors questioned, “Is this really necessary?”

As I strengthened my online presence, I started to become aware of just how white the mainstream publishing business actually is, the self-publishing world filled with not only a great deal more diversity of authors, but American novels showing completely new sides of American culture. With more non-white writers in my sight, it began to question things that I presumed as norm.

At one point, I read a thread about what word writers thought was overused in book titles. One of the top ones? “THOT.”

“What the hell is THOT?” I asked.

After that discussion, I did start to notice “That Hoe Over There”  in a lot of indie books. Other titles and atypical vernacular stand out to me too, not “fitting in” with the standards of protocol that you can be naturally desensitized to. More colloquial phrases that were avoided to not alienate other writers. Longer phrases that are more upfront about the book being about… what it’s actually about. I see plenty of indies writing about cheating and romanticizing less than ideal circumstances among relationships, but the “THOT” books tend to glamorize these things without the bashful shame I've come to expect.

The first time I stepped off a subway station and came face to face with a giant poster of a beautiful white women, an epiphany struck me. Coming from white-landia originally, I logically respected that we aren’t representing lots of people in the media, but after getting out of a cramped subway car filled with a vast sampling of all walks of life, my skin feeling grimy and the air stinking of dirt, I looked up at that poster and was smacked in the face with how it feels to be standing in a reality so different from what is portrayed as ideal. That model, clean skinned and pale with just the right amount of blush, looked so far away from my position in life, I felt hopelessness overwhelm me. Just for a moment, gone in a flash because I am full of myself, but I guess that was the first time I truly empathized with feeling like you can never have a fantasy life.

One of the reasons I am pursuing traditional publication over self-publishing is my desire to have other people’s opinions. Sure, you can get that in self-publishing, but it’s expensive (your wallet) and more difficult without experience of vetting and networking behind you. While dealing with a company that has already hired and worked with someone for years and years, you have a better faith than picking up a freelancer and trusting that their “hundreds of books” were actually done well. I have spent my life trying to understand other people’s perspectives, but at the end of the day, you don’t know what you don’t know, and the extra opinions are exactly what I want.

As someone who would like more racial diversity in literature, I still find myself struggling with decisions, afraid that I’m revealing some of my ignorance, or even just making the problems worse by perpetuating an issue. I have no interest in looking like some dumbass showing off how open minded they are either, a white knight (pun intended) mechanically showing off my goodness, but not even trying to incorporate more diversity just continues a problem I think many of us, regardless of our position in life, should tackle.

I joke with men who try to write for women that there is no such thing as a women who isn’t a stereotype. You give her any sort of flaw and immediately you’re “saying something.” Making her lazy? It’s a commentary on lazy housewives. Making her driven? It’s a stereotype of the super women. The best way to solve it is, of course, having more than one female. And also, writing from the heart, dropping his own censorship and fears and presenting a character in the way he really sees her… but that’s a complex solution for another blog. But the point is, I recommend to them to not worry too much about looking sexist because people can accuse you of it no matter what you do. Just try to be real, whatever that means to you. Stifling yourself will cause more issues than it solves.

I see that problem when writing about any outside perspectives. When I was in L.A., I had to write a play for a repertory group, a select number of actors. I started it with only the numbers and genders in mind, but got to know the cast over the time I worked on it. There was a black actor who I liked a lot, who was young, eager, dedicated, and I felt got pushed aside partially due to his kind and accepting demeanor, but also suspicious his small roles in the company might have to do with “not looking the part.”

When casting, I gave him the best role in the production. The part I would have wanted, if it was me. The villain of course, a charming demon tricking people into committing sin. I didn't think much of it, but it was during the dress rehearsal, I had a techie turn to me and ask, “Did you give him that part because he was the black guy?” Or actually, I think she said, “You made him the demon because he was the black guy.” I told her she was an idiot. We laughed.

But honestly, I don't think any of the parts could have not been racist by virtue of how we perceive flaws in “outsiders.” They were all deeply flawed in some way, and a lot of their mistakes, while very human, could be construed as depicting a negative overall view. The main character was a draft dodger in the Vietnam War with PTSD—portraying a black man as a cowardly war veteran? I had the religious zealot, the teenage girl who got pregnant and the abusive boyfriend who got her there. I had the bartender who kills her sister in the fit of rage. Even the young woman who has to raise her brother due to absent parents could be saying something if someone wanted to accuse me of it. None of these things are limited to a certain kind of race, but when creating a screwed-up person of an alternative heritage (or gender) who is used to being villainized, it's hard not to assume it was intentional. Even by a white techie.

Now, the cast was already richly diverse anyway, and none of the parts had been written with a specific race in mind. In earnest, all the characters were originally imagined as white, as my tendency. And I think that’s pretty important to recognize: sometimes you will be accused of racism even when the evolution would allow for no subconscious execution of inner beliefs.

Should we let that affect us?

I actually don’t know. Which is exactly my point. I don't have to decide on my own.

I’ve been working on the mythology for a larger series, one in which I intentionally made the gods, stolen from our world, racially diverse. For them, I rolled their races using the U.S. census to give me a reasonable sampling so as to naturalize it. Their ethnicity was defined purely by chance. But I found my cast still pretty white washed, and my main villain rolled as the only Asian character.

I like her, actually. A lot. I knew little about the character when rolling for race, even imagined her as male in her generic form. She started as a representation of the “God of Justice” I kept seeing in my Dungeon and Dragon’s groups, the one who paladins worshiped, supposed to be the pure god of the light, but typically ended up more like the god of capitalistic pseudo-heroes, one who legitimizes and empowers greedy behavior and power mongering. Our paladins were often bullies and really pushed the boundaries of morality which their god tended to encourage, or at least ignored.

That’s how the God of Justice I imagined was: someone who was supposed to be good, but typically just rationalized vindictive behavior by power-hungry individuals. Lawful Good meant closed-minded and unforgiving. In one case, a paladin player had advocated genocide of those with "evil" alignments.

When my god rolled as Asian, this tough-love and driven character immediately connected with the “Tiger Mom” stereotype, and my initial instinct was to say, “No, she can’t have family because she’ll never get back to them…”

Ah. But wait.

A good person who’s personal motive sours their perspective? What better than a mother who merely wants to get back to her child? Of course she doesn’t see the creations as people. Of course she uses them to her own devices. She has one goal that, really, most of us would relate to.

She stood as a brilliant contrast to the main character of another book I’ve been working on; a mother who had abandoned her husband and child to go and try and be a writer. I hate the character as I write her, even though she is one of the few people I directly started from a foundation of self—a parallel universe in which I had pursued family over character and then regretted it, rather than the other way around. Amelia, my Asian god, started nothing like me, but I related to her far more than I ever did to Ronny, my asshole writer. The one thing that could ruin being transported to a whole new world? Leaving my child behind. I have maternal instincts like nothing else, and I too could see myself blinded by my need to get back to my family.

But there’s some issues. Amelia is the goddess of the “paladins,” a powerful warrior race; that was the idea from the jump. One of the things that makes them so powerful—I decided later—was her strict creation of them. Unlike the other gods who start to play around and see what they can make, she creates them with a purpose. They are designated by the greenish tint to their skin and hair, the color of the material that is used to create life. The other gods typically tried to replicate humans as well as they could, but Amelia didn’t bother. Why would she?

So they really are a striking race known mostly for their abilities in fighting. Made by the only Asian god. You can see my conundrum. Is this racist even though some of the elements evolved completely outside the input of my subconscious or conscious racial bias? Is it racist if I took an race-based association straight from my life and used it to inform and craft realism and relatability into a character? The Goddess of Justice/Wraith seeking her child is far more interesting than the God of Justice/Wraith making a race of warriors for the hell of it, after all. Amelia is more likable than that helmeted guy I was picturing before.

Now here’s the sad thing: I could easily remove any racist traces by just… making her white. Or I could sit here and carefully question each decision and try to avoid any stereotypes that I know I’m committing. Is she allowed to play the violin? I chose that as her “art” (all gods were originally brought to this world due to their success as artists) because I am extra obsessed with my violin right now, but there are quite a few Asian people who you’ll see in symphonies and orchestras (and I very well may have given her the violin for that very reason, I don't know), so is that something I need to avoid?

I could spend all my time working around it and over thinking it. Or, I could do as I normally do, and write whatever feels right then see how people react. I could show my perspective of the world, stop worrying about the criticism until the later drafts, tweaking it with the newfound knowledge of what is actually problematic.

Amelia is the most developed and beloved character so far. I’ve always had a thing for villains anyway, but she has become a lot more than just that faceless jackass god who never seemed bothered with his paladins blackmailing peasants. I like her, and for me to go about changing her just because I might be propagating a problematic view seems like I'm jumping the gun. People might have no problem with what I'm saying. She might be very different in 200 pages from now. Perhaps it is better to just wait and see what actually happens.

In all honesty, if my problematic world view comes out in my pages, the issue probably won’t be the obvious. I mean, if I really understood the issue, I wouldn't worry about how to deal with it. Most offense comes when the viewer is reminded how few people understand their problems, how no one will get it when they do finally act out and try to stand up for themselves.

The men who say the most hurtful or awful things to me often genuinely claim, “I didn’t mean to do that!” Yeah. I know. That’s the issue. If someone approaches me sadistically, I’m pretty good at defending myself, but when someone who just wants my attention has no idea how his actions affect me, it makes it pretty hard to let them in on the secret without them getting defensive, without me looking like an overly sensitive bitch. It’s the fun, no-win game of being too indirect versus “overreacting.”

You don’t know what you don’t know. It wasn’t up until last year that I fully understood that the need to remain emotionally strong isn’t just in guys’ heads. I didn’t hear stories about how a girlfriend would look at him in disgust when he finally opened up to her crying, how she told him she left him because she “had no respect” for him. I started to listen to story after story about how women have proved that being emotional is unattractive. All I knew prior was that I struggled to knock down some artificial barrier between me and guys, that my first boyfriend ripped his hand out of mind to lean forward and cry at UP! I didn’t understand why he was doing it. I didn’t believe that any girl would have been disgusted to see that. I believed it was solely due to his irrational need to prove masculinity. I didn't know what it was like until someone actually told me.

Just like men eye me with skepticism when I tell them the stupid shit I’ve had said to me in the name of getting laid, my first reaction to being told that women actually lost attraction for a man who cried was, “Bullshit.” You’re exaggerating. You’re just prematurely afraid of it.

Why? Because I never saw it myself. If I have done it, I hadn’t caught myself. And no one ever revealed this very common phenomenon to me until I was 26 years old. It was my brother who first mentioned it and only in passing. And I always considered him sort of a natural wall. That’s what I always thought. Guys didn’t express their emotions because they didn’t like me enough. We weren't good enough friends. They didn't get the catharsis of expressing themselves. I didn’t realize that maybe it’s because of shitty experiences that taught them not to trust me.

I know now to be extra cautious when a man opens up to me, to make sure he knows that I am not disgusted, that I am there for him, to watch my actions because even if, “I didn’t mean to do that!” it can still affect him if I react unintentionally poorly. I pay attention to how I portray my men’s emotional state in my manuscripts and notice the ways I have picked at their possible insecurities, perpetuated obnoxious expectations.

At the end of my book, after all is said and done, the battle has been won and their finally facing freedom, my male character sits with a broken leg and bloody face before the girl tells him… they have to go back for their shit. He starts crying.

I debated for a long time whether or not to take it out. Is this funny? Or is this embarrassing? It wasn't until after realizing how men feel like they have to keep it in, I had my decision made for me.

The idea of sensitivity readers is simple: have a someone scan through a book for racially on sexually insensitive things. Or, in other words, get someone else to read through your work and tell you how it makes them feel. There’s quite a bit of balking at it in this climate. What about censorship?! Why do I always have to worry about other people’s over sensitivity?

Well, you know what? You don’t. Honestly, sometimes people are overly sensitive or dramatic. I know I am. Sometimes they’re not asking themselves about your perspective, too focused on their own. You can spend all your life worrying about what other people will think, yet never make everyone happy, so there is something to be said for saying what you believe regardless of the reaction.

But that’s just what criticism is about in general. Someone says something. Someone else says something else. You say your own thing. You take all that into consideration and you decide if and what you want to do about it.

“Sensitivity readers” is a terrible name because it does spike the fear of having to walk on eggshells for someone who just can’t control their emotions. However, as a writer, I see absolutely no reason to not have one, outside of how you divvy resources. Paying a reader to give feedback on something that you and your publishers don’t know a lot about—like a having an FBI agent read through your novel about an FBI agent—is common enough, but of course you need to be sensible about if that’s really a good expense.

But from a creative standpoint? I want to know this shit. Even if I don’t agree with it, being fairly warned of a possible reaction is useful. It’s why you have beta-readers period. It’s why you have critique partners. Hell, it’s why you have editors. Whether or not it’s how we both see a word differently or how we both see life in total, that’s one of the predominant reasons for literature in the first place. You start to realize that you’re not so much a “realist” seeing everything how it really is, you’re not just an objective computer, but you are a human and you see the world in a certain light different from others. You have your experiences, they have theirs, and those affect us. And that's what makes literature interesting.

In some cases, authors messing up and writing something that furthers problematic thinking is exactly what brings it to the forefront, so there might be something to be said for letting people write offensive crap and making the world aware that that thinking still exists. But from a personal standpoint, my thoughts are always evolving, my perspective changing, I’m learning, and even just a basic curiosity makes me want to hear how what I say and do affects other people.

If you liked this post, want to support, contact, stalk, or argue with me, please consider...

Liking Charley Daveler on Facebook
Following @CharleyDaveler on Twitter
Following @CDaveler on Instagram

Popular Posts