Guest Post by Viveca Shearin
So, picture this: you’re a person of color reading a book. All is well. You have your favorite cup of coffee and some snacks nearby, you’re snuggled on your bed, and nothing can stop you from reading. Until you come across a scene in said book that paints your community in a bad light. Your mood is immediately dampened, and you begin to question how such a scene was given the greenlight by the author and the publishing company. A few decades back, thousands of books like that were being published by authors writing outside of their lived experiences. These authors, most of whom were white, never considered the harmful stereotypes being perpetuated by their words, stories, and characters. As a result, various marginalized communities were directly and indirectly harmed. This has since changed for the better because of the hard work being done by sensitivity readers.
What is a sensitivity reader? A sensitivity reader (or authenticity reader, as it’s also called) is a person from a marginalized community responsible for reading an author’s manuscript to make sure that their work is free of any harmful stereotypes and other things that might hurt people from their or other marginalized communities. For example, if an author is writing a story about a Black trans person, a Black trans sensitivity reader is going to read that manuscript to vet its authenticity and to make sure that the author did their utmost best to accurately represent their community. And if they do find any inflammatory material, it’s up to the sensitivity reader to point it out to the author and to help suggest changes and revisions. It is then up to the author to listen to the sensitivity reader and to make the suggested changes.
Sensitivity reading is a relatively new and recent practice, having been initiated within the last decade or so. Sensitivity readers come from all walks of life (race/ethnicity, gender identity/orientation, sexual orientation, religion, disabilities, etc.) and can use their lived experiences to make sure future books and stories are filled with proper representation and authentic voices. For example, I vet Black characters for young adult, new adult, and some middle grade projects. Within those genres, I also read fantasy, paranormal, romance, contemporary, as well as a few more topics. As a Black woman, I’m able to read and vet Black characters because I’m from that community and have lived experience doing so.
While sensitivity readers serve an important role, there are some who feel that it is a form of censorship. Sensitivity reading isn’t a form of censorship. While censorship involves removing content that people would find objectionable, sensitivity reading ensures that content produced by writers and authors isn’t harmful to the BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and other communities within and throughout those intersectionalities.
At this point, you’re probably wondering if you have what it takes to be a sensitivity reader or if this is something you can do. There is no wrong or right answer. And I don’t think it’s my place to try to convince you to go on this path. If you are from the BIPOC community, LGBTQIA+ community, or another marginalized community, you are more than welcome to lend your lived experiences to being a sensitivity reader. It also depends on the genres of books you like to read as well as the subject matter you’re comfortable with. Sensitivity reading isn’t for everyone, and that’s perfectly okay. It isn’t something that happens instantly overnight. It takes a lot of time, a lot of patience, and knowing when to be kind to yourself. Knowing when to step back from projects, take a break, and regroup.
I hope that this helped you understand a bit about what sensitivity reading is. And if you have any more questions or would like to contact me for a project, feel free to reach out to me via email at email@example.com. Thanks for reading!
Note from Indigo: If you’re writing about characters from any community outside of your own, we encourage you to contact Viveca or another professional for a sensitivity read. If you need someone with experience outside of Viveca’s, Indigo can help you find an authenticity reader who is the right fit. We’re happy to help!
Viveca Shearin is a co-publisher for Not a Pipe Publishing, an indie publisher based in Oregon. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. When she’s not doing work for Not a Pipe, Viveca works as a freelance sensitivity reader. And when she’s not working, you can find her bingeing on coffee or tea, gaming with family, or being immersed in a good book. You can find her on LinkedIn or contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m still trying to make up my mind about sensitivity reading.
My initial impulse is to be wary of it, the writer’s points notwithstanding.