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Michelle's Musings

Sensitivity Reading

The member forum section of a writers community to which I belong recently discussed the use of sensitivity readers (SR), engendering lively debate about whether or not such scrutiny stifles creativity.


But what exactly is a sensitivity reader? According to N. K. Jemisin of masterclass.com, "A sensitivity reader is not a copy editor. Their job is not to check for grammar or fact-check but to find issues with misrepresentation and other inaccuracies….At the conclusion of their sensitivity review, do not expect them to provide comments about grammatical or spelling issues but instead to comment about the characters and their interactions."


Generally speaking, SR is a form of beta reading that potentially uncovers problematic areas with offensive or ill-informed misrepresentations such as stereotypes and tropes. To a limited extent, SR can constrain free expression; however, the process is similar to other conventional forms of editing. If SR sounds like censorship to you, many would agree.


Some writers who've utilized SR report greater insight into communities with which they weren't familiar such as the mentally ill or physically disabled. However, the more provocative discussion in the above-mentioned forum focused on racial and cultural sensitivity. It was quite telling to see folks go through all sorts of mental gymnastics to define SR as censorship, specifically with regard to different races or cultures and not so much other communities, leaving me to wonder if their "debate" over SR represents a reluctance to address preconceived notions about people who don't look, eat, dress, love, speak, or worship like them.


On the one hand, writers are free to write what they want, but they may not enjoy a large audience if their work panders to distasteful stereotypes. And there's no law requiring a private publishing company, which is in the business of making money, to represent or give platform to an author's exceedingly ignorant take on someone else's culture; however, that author has the right to shop their material in venues indifferent to accurate representation.


While I don't have extensive knowledge about all cultures, it's not difficult to avoid insulting people. If I happen to stick my foot in my mouth, I take stock of my error to ensure that I don't become a repeat offender. For those who feel they "can't say anything without being canceled," why is it difficult to understand what is and isn't offensive to large groups of people? If a collection of like-minded folks finds your generalizations about them objectionable, why not accept them at face value? Sure, exceptions exist for just about everything, but what are the odds an entire community is being dishonest?


If you feel like you must walk on eggs to avoid upsetting folks, perhaps you need to ask yourself what renders you susceptible to doing so? Then seize the teachable moment and educate yourself about those often deemed "the other." In doing so, you just might learn we've got more in common than you think!

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