Misconceptions About Sensitivity Readers

Here’s the article that spawned my post:

There’s a lot to unpack here.

Ouch. As someone who has been paid to sensitivity read, I firmly object to the word “censor.” Imagine that you were writing a book about a murder mystery. If a trauma surgeon told you that your neuroscience was wrong, would that be censorship? What if you paid them for their suggestions?

At its core, sensitivity reading is a paid service. We are not sanctimonious finger-waggers; we are freelance businesses. A writer comes to me when they want me to critically engage with their text and provide culturally-specific feedback. I do not force them to remove anything. I tell them how their writing differs from my personal and professional experience. Sometimes that can mean changing certain words, and at other times I may suggest further developing a character’s background.

I am not here to call writers a sexist, a racist, or a homophobe. I do not delight in pointing out inaccuracies. That is not a healthy client-freelancer relationship. Instead, I encourage you to think of sensitivity readers as any other type of consultant, whether it’s for weight loss or KonMari’ing your house. Sometimes the dietitian has to suggest cutting carbs from your diet, but it’s ultimately up to the client to implement those changes. If you don’t, then that’s no skin off the consultant’s back.

Are sensitivity readers infallible? Should I expect them to be?

Sensitivity readers are not speakers for their people. They speak for their own experiences and professional background. Note that sensitivity readers are not the final authority on their culture, and it is not a ‘gotcha’ for them to be ‘wrong.’ Culture is shaped by a community’s historical memory, and it is impossible for an individual to represent their community. There are slurs that I consider offensive, but other Asians will consider them harmless. This is why it is crucial for the writer to trust the sensitivity reader that they are hiring. A good sensitivity reader will try to give you as much perspective as possible, rather than trying to give one definitive answer to every problematic text.

What makes you qualified to be a sensitivity reader, then?

Personal experiences and education will usually do it. Volunteer and work experience can qualify too. I’ll consult extensively for East Asian stuff, because I have an actual degree in Asian American Studies and I’ve been called a c***k to my face. Dealing with that for 20 years is not something that English classes will teach ya.

What’s arguably more important is the ability to give constructive feedback while acknowledging that your experiences are not absolute. It would be cooler if sensitivity readers were crusaders with big swords, but we’re not. We’re freelancers who are being paid to provide a service.

On a more serious note, the only thing that really qualifies someone to be a sensitivity reader is “they’re closer to the culture than you are.”

What do sensitivity readers actually do?

Here’s what actually happens when someone requests a sensitivity reading from me:

  1. I tell them my rate, and I ask them for the level of service they want. I calculate the final fee based on how closely they want me to read, and the length of the manuscript. I will also decide on a rate for additional services, in the case that the manuscript needs extensive re-reads.
  2. They agree to my rate and send me their manuscript.
  3. I read the manuscript and take notes on any perceived cultural inaccuracies. I will include these notes in my comments.
  4. If the fee is sufficient, then I will write suggestions for them to consider in their next revision. I do not rewrite the manuscript, and I do not remove any words.
  5. I will write a paragraph or two about my overall impressions of the text. This is in addition to my inline notes.
  6. I send it back to the writer, who decides if they need any more readings.
  7. If the writer does not want any more services, then I invoice them and they pay my fee.

Notice that I do not edit the text at all, and I do not ask if the writer has changed anything in the manuscript. I don’t mind if the writer hasn’t implemented any of my suggestions, as long as my fee is paid. I have performed a service to the best of my ability.

“Does a sensitivity reader have to match the character(s) or plot exactly?”

Absolutely not! If this was the ironclad rule, then less characters would get sensitivity read, and overall literary quality would suffer. I would prefer to read a Mulan novel that was sensitivity read by a Vietnamese man, rather than not having a sensitivity reader at all.
Remember, the writer is not striving for absolute accuracy. The writer is striving for a slightly more realistic and relatable portrayal than they can manage themselves.

“Do I have to pay the sensitivity reader if I don’t agree with their feedback?”

Yes, you have to pay them for their time. If you think there’s something suspect about their services, then you can pay for an additional sensitivity reader. Sensitivity readers are not here to argue with you about representation. They are here to provide you a service for their fee.

“Besides slurs, what other things do you read for?”

To be clear, I’m not primarily looking for offense in a text (though that can be part of it). I’m looking for wrongness in a text. For example, a British person may feel like it is ‘wrong’ to take excess restaurant food home in a doggie bag. An American may think it is ‘wrong’ to drive down I-35 on the left side of the road.

I have personally consulted for:

  • East Asian languages being described incorrectly, naming conventions in general
  • The descriptions of Asian American restaurants
  • Generational differences between first, 1.5, and second generation Asian Americans
  • Cultural context for character biographies

As you can see, there is a lot more to consult for beyond “this character said a slur.”

“I learned a lot from this!”

Glad to hear it. You can contribute to my Ko-fi, if you like.

One Reply to “Misconceptions About Sensitivity Readers”

  1. Thanks for this. I’ve only just discovered the existence of sensitivity readers and these were exactly the sorts of things I wanted to know.

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