Hiya, it’s me again. So nice to see you here! Today I wanna talk about sensitivity readers; what are they and why do they matter? The reason I want to talk about this is because I recently posted in a Facebook group for comic creators. In this post I offered my services as a sensitivity reader for autistic, ADHD, non-binary and LGBT+ characters. The first comment I got came from someone who seemed very angry at this (many exclamation points were involved). He seemed to misunderstand what a sensitivity reader is and suggested I’d “grow some balls” (no thank you). Anyway, many people jumped to my defence and since it was late, I decided to go to sleep.
When I woke up the next morning, my post had 112 comments, many of which I couldn’t see because a moderator had stepped in and removed them for violating the group rules (y’know, the “don’t be an asshole” rules). After trying to explain what a sensitivity reader is to some less angry commenters, I decided that maybe it was time to write a blog about it. So let’s dive into this subject, shall we?
What the F is a sensitivity reader??
Glad you asked! A sensitivity reader is much like a beta-reader for things such as books, comics, tv/movie scripts and articles. Except unlike a beta-reader, a sensitivity reader doesn’t comment on the plot of the thing they’re reviewing. A sensitivity reader gives feedback about the portrayal of marginalised characters. So for example, if a white hetero man writes a Black female lesbian, it’s a good idea for him to hire a Black female lesbian sensitivity reader who can check if the character is being portrayed accurately.
So unlike what my lovely commenters thought, a sensitivity reader is not there to make something go from R-rated to PG-rated. You can still swear in your writing or write about a bloody fight scene. A sensitivity reader’s job is to make sure your characters, and the story that surrounds them, are authentic. They do this specifically for characters that belong to a marginalised group the writer is not a part of. Marginalised groups are BIPOC (Black Indigenous People Of Colour), LGBT+ people, disbled people (physically and/or mentally), neurodivergent people, and mentally ill people. People from an oppressed religion, such as muslims and jews, are also often considered a marginalised group.
Sensitivity readers check for conscious or unconscious biases that a writer may have that influence the writing. They check for stereotypes, false information and give suggestions for a more accurate portrayal.
Why are sensitivity readers important?
Two words: lived experience. I’m white and anti-racism. I’m aware of my white privilege and I will do everything in my power to write a BIPOC character correctly. But I will probably still make mistakes, because I don’t know what it’s like to be BIPOC. I don’t know what it’s like to experience racism and no amount of research about a culture can make me understand what it’s like to be part of that culture. So I would need a sensitivity reader if I were to write a BIPOC character. Just because you have done your research doesn’t mean you’re suddenly an expert. I mean, even so-called “autism experts” never fail to baffle me with the bullshit that comes out of their mouths.
If you as a straight person are reading this and thinking “I’m sure I can write a gay character authentically”, let me burst your bubble: you can’t. Trust me, many writers before you have tried and failed. You probably didn’t think they did, but that’s because you’re straight. The same goes for every other marginalised identity you’re not a part of.
Here’s the thing: there are a lot of marginalised people in the world. Like, a lot a lot. They want to read or watch things in which they feel represented. These people have blogs and social media. They write reviews, they tell their friends and family about your work and post their opinions on Twitter. Wouldn’t it suck if all of those people completely bashed your hard work because you didn’t take the time to check your work for biases? Not only that, these people deserve proper representation.
Growing up I didn’t have anyone like me to look up to. I think it would have been great for me to see an autistic superhero of sorts. Even now I’m still waiting for proper autism representation, because it’s really rare. If you’re not a marginalised person, you have no idea how much it means to see yourself properly represented in any sort of media. Proper representation is what gives kids hope and makes adults feel proud. It can boost someone’s self-esteem and make them believe in themselves. So I really think it’s our job as writers to make sure everyone is accounted for. It’s our job to tell stories where everyone feels seen and heard.
Media representation affects real people
This is probably one of the biggest reasons why sensitivity readers are so important: media representation affects how real people are treated. Just an example: because the media often portrays autistic people as an anti-social and “weird” stereotype, people now discredit my diagnosis because I’m not “autistic enough”, whatever that means. For decades, if not longer, the media has portrayed Black people as thieves and thugs, and because of that people associate crime with Black people. Asian (specifically Chinese and other East-Asians) are constantly being portrayed as math nerds. This is why a lot of (majorly white) people assume all Asian people are good at science and technology (which can put pressure on them at school and work). The list goes on and on really, so making sure your characters are actually good representation is very important. It can literally reshape someone’s view of a marginalised group for the better.
To wrap it up..
Sensitivity reading is a profession and should be treated as such. Meaning: PAY THE PEOPLE YOU HIRE!!
I can’t stress that enough. It’s not just a friend you’re asking for some feedback. You’re asking someone to use their lived experience and expertise to thoroughly analyse your work and give feedback. This also means that you can’t just become a sensitivity reader just because you belong to a marginalised group. Being a sensitivity reader requires having knowledge of what stereotypes and biases people have against your identity, as well as having knowledge of writing and character building. It also requires you to be able to give proper feedback that’s more than just “this is wrong”.
If you are looking for an autistic, ADHD, mentally ill, LGBT+ or non-binary sensitivity reader, shoot me a message!
If you are looking for another kind of sensitivity reader, I recommend checking out Salt & Sage Books.
I hope you learned something today and I hope all writers are going to consult sensitivity readers. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask!