Writing While White: Sensitivity Readers

First, I offer a scene in a current WIP of mine:

He thinks over the question. Does everyone hate him? Betsy’s voice talks in his head, telling him “hate” is too strong a word – she works with small children after all – but in truth, he doesn’t see much difference between hate and any other of the similar emotions that express dislike. If someone says they don’t like onions, then they avoid them at all costs, which seems pretty much like hating them, too. If a co-worker tells his boss that they hate working with him, but still does, he doesn’t see how it makes much difference.

As far as he knows, only one person in recent years has actually gone to his boss with such a strong complaint. Maybe everyone else feels the same way and his boss hasn’t told him. Justin usually keeps most of his thoughts to himself at work and imagines his own dialogues where he gets to say anything he wants and ask all the questions he wants to make people talk clearly. He already imagined the conversation between himself and colleague that hated him. It went something like this:

“I hate you.” (He realizes that this conversation already clearly marks the difference between his fantasy conversation and reality, but isn’t the sentiment clear? This way he can simply accept the statement and move on. It’s not that he is happy that this person hates him – or dislikes him or wants to avoid him like onions – but it’s not altogether pleasant to hear much more after such a declaration.)


“Do you want to know why?” (He figures some reality is necessary. He’s not going–)

“Justin?” Lucia’s voice cuts in, pulling him back outside of his head.


She smiles. “You kind of disappeared for a moment there.”

“I’m right-” he stops and punches his leg before he can reveal that even now, at age thirty, he still mixes up literal and metaphorical uses for verbs. He was going to say “I’m right here. I could not have disappeared.” But obviously that isn’t what she meant.

“Yes. I do that sometimes. I don’t know if everyone hates me. They haven’t told me.”

She nods as though she miraculously understands. “I’d rather just hear someone tell me how they feel rather than them being all passive-aggressive about it.”

She only sort of understands, but it’s something. He tries to ignore the slight lift of his heart.

“Well,” he says, “I wouldn’t know if someone was acting passive-aggressively. I’m not very good at figuring out emotions that aren’t obvious. For example, I really have no idea if your comment just now was passive-aggressive. For that matter, I don’t actually understand what ‘passive-aggressive’ is. I mean, I know what it means, but whole concept still confuses me.”

This character, Justin, is one of two protagonists in this piece. Some might have guessed that he has some degree of autism. Have I done him justice? Fairly? Balanced? Without stereotype? I’m trying to do so, but as a neuro-typical writer, I can’t be sure. Naturally, I have lots and lots more research to do before this even gets out of discovery draft stage, and then after that, when this finally gets to penultimate draft stage, I will be in search of what is called a sensitivity reader for one of my beta readers.

What is a sensitivity reader, you ask? Author Natalia Sylvester gives a lot more detail and useful information in her post on Writer Unboxed, but basically is someone who is a part of a population that you are not, but you have written about. For example, when the time comes, I will want at least one person – preferably male – who has autism to read my manuscript about my character, Justin. That reader can help flag areas that don’t ring true and more importantly, let me know where I’ve gone off the rails and leaned too heavily on inaccurate stereotypes or other biases.

You see, as a writer within the dominant population groups (neuro-typical, able-bodied, cis-gendered, straight, white) I need to be especially aware of how I am portraying my characters who are from marginalized populations because really, how irresponsible is it to just mix it all up and misrepresent? How many times have you picked up a book and gotten angry at how the author has gotten you all wrong? If you are reading this, and you aren’t white, I know this happens All. Of. The. Time.

A friend of mine shared this meme awhile back on FB, and while it is an obvious exaggeration, I’m pretty sure many female readers can relate:


Do you see how this feels? Can we imagine something like this for a black reader always reading about how he is big, intimidating, and so often the bad guy? Can we imagine something like this for the Asian-American girl who is always portrayed as small and meek? If something as basic as a male writer constantly sexualizing his female characters can annoy us as female readers, what must it be like for a reader in a twice marginalized population where they are put inside a box that symbolizes years and years of misrepresentation?

Writing the Other and doing it well has gotten a lot more attention recently, and even better is that the concept of hiring sensitivity readers for our manuscripts has made it to public news. NPR had this article about growing use of sensitivity readers, and the last bit of it is my takeaway line from it: “Because people don’t realize the power of words and the power of bad representation — it can haunt people.” And before that there was this one from the Chicago Tribune – “[Dhonielle] Clayton, who is black, sees her role as a vital one. ‘Books for me are supposed to be vehicles for pleasure, they’re supposed to be escapist and fun,’ she says. They’re not supposed to be a place where readers ‘encounter harmful versions’ and stereotypes of people like them.” The key in there is understanding the word “harmful”, as in, doing damage in how we represent a population that is different than ourselves.

Writing “diversely” – or what would be nice to start recognizing as writing authentically – continues to ride the forefront of critical issues facing fiction writers today, and some authors and writers are expressing fear of even trying to write authentic worlds. What if we get it wrong?

Well, without question, we’ll get it wrong. We’re always going to get something wrong, but that shouldn’t stop us from doing the best we can. In truth, this fear is a good thing, because it gives us more motivation to do our due diligence with characters and situations that are not within our immediate life experience. It means we absolutely should avail ourselves of sensitivity readers to help us get as much of it right as we can.

Publishing is already skewed towards white authors, which is hugely problematic as it is, so if we are going to skate on this privilege, the absolute least we can do is to try to offer the most authentic representation we can in our stories.

I cannot deny that I, too, am worried about how my stories will be received by readers who fall into the marginalized populations. One of my manuscripts features a main character who is trans-female and another who is a bisexual, Latino male. One of my beta readers is transgender and that was absolutely by design. His feedback was essential. I have another manuscript where the protagonist is Latina, which is core to that story. Numerous times I have debated with myself on whether or not I have a right to tell her story – because let’s be honest, Latina authors do not need me to tell their story, and many would never want me to. I have a couple of people in mind to ask (hire) as sensitivity readers when the time comes, and maybe that will help me decide whether it should even be presented for public consumption.

In other words, I feel that same fear that other authors and writers have expressed. It’s a good thing. I mean, it shouldn’t paralyze us to the point that we don’t even include Other characters in our stories at all, because that’s counterproductive. But it does ensure that I put in the effort to get it right – or at least as right as I can. Having reservations is okay. How we deal with those reservations is key to producing the best manuscript possible. It prepares us for the inevitable criticism… which will then help us do better the next time.

As a final note, a resource: Author Justina Ireland started up a database of sensitivity readers for hire. Lots of possibilities and ever so helpful in trying to connect with one. Fantastic resource and many thanks to both Ireland and those who have been entered into the database.

Thoughts? Or maybe you have criticisms for my writing sample at the beginning? Feel free to give me what I need to hear on that, too.

This song is so appropriate for many things right now, and it works for this, too. History has its eyes on us, let’s not be willfully ignorant and mess it up, eh?





3 thoughts on “Writing While White: Sensitivity Readers

  1. That male author writing a female character meme is hilarious! FWIW, I think you always have the right to write a character or story that you have created. If you have a story you want to tell, you should tell it. Obviously, you want to get the characters right. And not just to be sensitive to your readers, but also for your story to be believable. It sounds like your certainly doing your due diligence in that regard. If writers only wrote about populations they belonged too, we’d have a lot fewer books!


    1. I don’t know if I – or anyone – has the *right* to write a character or story, but yes, I agree we definitely need to include more than whatever population we belong to, for sure. That’s our world and it only seems right and logical to represent it in our worlds and words. Thank you for the encouragement!


  2. This was a really useful post as sensitivity readers (although I didn’t know there was an actual name for them) are exactly what I was about to start looking for.

    With my book being set in the 1920s, I’m uncertain to what level I need to reflect how segregated and prejudiced that society was – I want to find out whether readers who belong to those mistreated minorities want to revel in the positive aspects of the time period without having to be confronted with the fact that people like them were terribly abused by society, or whether they feel that the true horror of the period needs to be conveyed, even in a paranormal fantasy comedy.


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