What Sensitivity Readers Actually Do

Sensitivity readers say to the author, “We exist too, and we ought to exist on our terms.”
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On Sunday, The New York Times posed a question to book lovers: ”In an Era of Online Outrage, Do Sensitivity Readers Result in Better Books, or Censorship?” It’s a hard question to answer ― mainly because the dichotomy it presents is reductive and false.

Sensitivity readers are not censors or free speech police. They’re people who review advance manuscripts of upcoming books, check for issues of representation, bias, insensitive language and cultural inaccuracies, and make suggestions to authors. While the work they do may tie into an era of “online outrage” and a “hyperreactive social media landscape,” as Alexandra Alter writes for the Times, sensitivity readers are still a beneficial and necessary component in the push for diversity and inclusion.

To conflate sensitivity readers with peddlers of toxic drama is to place an actual diversity initiative under the same umbrella as what’s often a shallow ploy for social media points. These advance readers do not exist to flag “offensive” content, especially not where kid lit is concerned. In February 2016, the blog Book Riot published a list of the 15 bestselling young adult books of all time, as well as the bestselling YA series. Each book on the list centered on a straight, white protagonist.

“Much of the content adults find offensive will fly over the heads of children and teens.”

That trend is what has to change. Much of the content adults find offensive will fly over the heads of children and teens. It’s only as people of color, LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups come into adulthood that we realize how the content we read when we were young and impressionable poisoned our view of ourselves and the world around us. Sensitivity readers bring to light aspects of the world that the book is coming into ― aspects that may have been overlooked by the author, who is, after all, only one person, with only one perspective. Sensitivity readers say to the author, “We exist too, and we ought to exist on our terms.”

That which marginalized readers once thought was normal and standard was actually feeding us the notion that we are abnormal, other, unheroic, bound for an untimely death, or simply nonexistent. Until members of marginalized groups understand how quietly white supremacy and heteronormativity are enforced, we won’t even realize it’s harming us. More likely, we’ll absorb biased information about ourselves and our place in the world due to the prevalence of white, heterosexual perspectives on most of the material available.

Sensitivity readers are there to challenge that default ― not by lambasting books or authors, but by educating writers about how their work functions as an extension of a society that is itself harmful.

When we are involved in the process of telling our own narratives, we make it so we can imagine a way out of what the world makes of us and has made of us, time after time, in story after story. When we are heroes of our own stories, we write them in ways that are authentic. The authenticity is what makes for great stories, and this inclusion is what sensitivity readers can ― and do ― bring to the table.

There is, without a doubt, an issue with the way we discuss problematic content on social media, particularly YA Twitter (the Twitter community devoted to young adult literature). We put too much faith in the grapevine, allowing a handful of passionately worded reviews to incite chain reactions of backlash against books rumored to be harmful. And far too accepted in the culture is the notion that people of color are a monolith and all experience harmful content the same way.

“Many people forget that individuals within a given culture exist as separate entities within said culture, as well as part of this culture,” says Aimal Farooq, a Pakistani-American sensitivity reader who blogs at Bookshelves & Paperbacks. “In the heat of things when discussions are taking place, many are boxed into one or two dimensions that stem from a lack of understanding, convenience or, simply, influence. I don’t think this is done purposely or maliciously, but it’s done, and it makes many marginalized people feel unheard and unseen within their own communities.”

At fault in this culture are both those who cry censorship at the slightest whiff of criticism and those who only contribute to the conversation to gain credibility. People in the former group don’t understand the real reasons for the uproar. People in the latter group are seeking praise for tokenization and the perpetuation of language they know will paint them as “woke.” An image of wokeness, no matter how lazily applied, gives one voice and agency in the discourse.

“Good sensitivity readers force authors to recognize their blind spots, not only in their work, but in the way they move through the world.”

We cannot evaluate the unique role of sensitivity readers, or diversity in general, from a white perspective. Building a truly inclusive industry means breaking a status quo that has always put white concerns at the forefront of the conversation. Continuing to center white authors and readers will sweep the positive impacts by outspoken authors and gatekeepers of color under the rug. Also swept under will be a full understanding of what issues spur the outcry and uproar.

We also cannot ignore the way the changes in the publishing industry are benefiting people who were previously locked out of it. The role of sensitivity readers has opened a window of opportunity for people of color who aren’t able to find employment elsewhere in the industry. You need only look at Publishers Weekly’s 2015 diversity survey, which showed the industry is nearly 80 percent white, to find proof of how hard it is for POC to find work in the business. The push for these reviewers knocks down social and economic barriers by giving people a seat at the table who didn’t have one before.

Most importantly, good sensitivity readers create necessary dialogue between white people and people of color, between straight people and the LGBTQ community, and ― potentially, ideally ― between people who are different from one another in any way. They build a platform of understanding. They force authors to recognize their blind spots, not only in their work, but in the way they move through the world. The practice challenges authors, and readers, and people, to grow. It transcends literature. And it challenges the white, heteronormative voice that for centuries has talked over and vilified marginalized people and continues to do so.