Potential triggers: Mention of death, murder, genocide, sorcery, insects, military-industrial complex, upset stomach; images of human skill and paper moths
He’s a tourist. He vacations in people’s lives, takes pictures, puts them in his scrapbook, and moves on. All he’s interested in are stories. Basically, Leslie, he’s selfish. And you’re not. That’s why you don’t like him.Ron Swanson, Season 2, episode 16 of parks and recreation
Sensitivity readers usually come up in discourse as the obligation of white people writing people of color, but that’s reductive. Years ago, when I first started to write about Chinese culture, I got things wrong because I was largely raised in the United States. White friends were usually quick to reassure me it didn’t matter, allowing me “creative license.” However, I found that using advice from my Hong Kong-born Chinese friends inevitably made the work richer and more engaging, even if it was also humbling.
Turns out, my imagination can’t outdo the collective energy of billions of people through millennia. But I could grow from learning.
There’s a difference between botching representation due to (even benign) ignorance versus thoughtful and informed re-imagination. None of us can learn everything, but remaining ignorant is a choice. Take Parks and Recreation‘s Justin in the quote up there. He’s not malicious, doesn’t cause permanent damage, but he’s not very cool.
- WHAT IS A SENSITIVITY READER?
- THE ORACLE
- THE SOLDIER
- DO YOU “HAVE TO” HIRE A SENSITIVITY READER?
- EMBARRASSMENT WILL BE OK
- REJECTION SENSITIVITY AND OTHER CONSIDERATIONS
- MAKING COMMUNITY
- LINKS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
- ADDENDUM ABOUT CURRY JOKES
I. WHAT IS A SENSITIVITY READER?
Sensitivity readers (SRs) are specialized editors who go through your work and provide feedback based on issues related to specific marginalizations (e.g., LGBTQ+, BIPOC, disabled people). Some think of them as a subcategory of “authenticity reader,” which can include all forms of expertise (not unlike interviewing a sculptor because you’re writing a sculptor). Typically, the goal is to reduce harm (e.g., from negative stereotypes), but this can involve increasing accuracy or sentence-level clarifications.
Contracts may vary, but often a report is written with major conclusions; other times, you may only ask for in-document comments. Paid SRs usually aren’t associated with fanwork, only commercial releases.
I worked with three SRs for SPIRIT PARLOUR, an immersive theater presentation about tragic ghosts from global history. Each character was bespoke to the actor, often with their own ideas in mind. Please note, I’m not positioning myself as an expert; these are my experiences and opinions to date.
II. THE ORACLE
Malex Reed is a Filipino American performer who can dance, sing, play piano, literally everything. They wanted to play a 1920s spiritual revivalist. I went straight-up Pinoy Dorian Gray, son of 1900 silk farmers manifests the American Dream in a queer, sex-progressive Seattle underworld, with con artistry and death magic. As soon as I finished, I worried I’d fallen into negative stereotypes about queerness and problematic race dynamics—despite the overlap with my own identity.
I hired two Filipino sensitivity readers: one resides in the Philippines and was particularly experienced with the history; the other is an immigrant who’s conducted extensive independent scholarship with occult practices around the world. Both were also experienced with queer stories. Forces combined, they were the dream team. Apart from evaluating for harm, these two readers actually gave me a lot of cool ideas too, the kind of details you can’t simply Google because search algorithms reward clicks and ad money, not preserved knowledge of lived experience.
I received culturally-informed costume suggestions for the Oracle (barong, above), as well as popular alcohol flavors in the Philippines as a base for the Oracle’s custom cocktail (below). I learned about occult murder in the Philippines, and ways Spanish religious practices integrated with pre-colonial spiritism, and queer history. I found a way to balance the character’s Catholic roots with his grisly horror arc. Overall, it appeared my take benefited from enhancement, but was a decent subversion and elevation of trope.
That being said, I was humbled to learn I’d made a few factual inaccuracies. My original draft suggested Nathaniel, the Oracle, had access to schooling but not English language studies; the reality of early 1900s missionary-organized farmwork was the inverse. In retrospect, it doesn’t surprise me laborer families were once forced to choose between education and money, but colonial forces were eager to press their language on others.
Writing the Oracle was super fun, educational, and a bit of a relief. I hope I did my Filipino friends proud, though I won’t be surprised if the character offends a different audience someday.
III. THE SOLDIER
When Kooper Campbell was cast, my assignment was to write a white soldier from either Europe or the South (USA) who’d died in a historic war. Years ago, I’d worked with the L/D/Nakota military veterans on the Pine Ridge reservation. Indigeneity felt inextricable to me from my understanding of the military-industrial complex. Therefore, I made Tom, the Soldier, a WWI casualty and his love interest a Native from Florida.
I was less worried than I was about my Filipino spiritualist, yet I made more mistakes. It was super embarrassing sometimes.
My first mistake was: I’d avoided naming Tom’s love interest in the one-page character summary because I was afraid to get it wrong, which left an amorphous cipher in place of an epic love. My sensitivity reader diplomatically pointed out that she and her family were very low on detail and names would be a good place to start. The reader did not and, I believed, could not just hand me a good name; I understood this was because I hadn’t hired someone with a history degree, plus cultural genocide fucked everything up. However, I was going to write love letters and poems; naming her was a must.
So I got over myself and Googled up awkward “Mvskoke baby name list”s. But something felt off; I knew from helping white friends grapple with Chinese name conventions. None of these alleged Mvskoke names could be cross-referenced or showed up in other research. Eventually, I dug into scanned records (see: Wikimedia Commons) and cultural information websites. I discovered that, long before the Indigenous Floridians adopted the name ‘Seminole,’ their ancestors gave their daughters Mvskoke names from ritual songs with restricted usage. In other words, the entire concept of “baby name lists” was irrelevant. It was very similar to the impact of colonization on the L/D/Nakota, when European “family names” were forced on them.
Seminole naming systems are very different from those[…] with whom most movie-goers are familiar. Women are given one name, shortly after their birth, and they keep it all through their lives. Their names usually are words taken from medicine songs (ritual chants) and do not translate well. After a woman has her first child, only her mother and older Clan relatives are permitted to use her name.Article from the Seminole Tribe Website
But see, that’s the challenge of writing the other; you don’t know how fundamental your incorrect assumptions are; you may not even know what to Google. It’s painful to realize that the language you, the researcher, understand, never bothered recording or transmitting those traditions.
I wound up naming her Jessamine, after a flower native to Florida, in understanding this was a name she’d given only to white people.
I am sorry to report Jessamine’s name was NOT the most uncomfortable experience in writing American Indigeneity. Though I had no plans to write about Indigenous medicine or rituals, my sensitivity reader recommended I obtain another reader with such knowledge. I looked all over Twitter and Google, and wound up reaching out to the Ah-Tah-Thiki Museum run by the Seminole Tribe in Florida.
I was told the Seminoles never disclose death-related medicine or the way the Seminoles see deceased members, and could not be involved. I was mortified. My brain fell out of my ass. Feeling very self-conscious, I asked if the tribe prefers outsiders altogether avoid writing about deceased Seminole family members, even inter-married ones. Turned out that was, indeed, the preference. They generously gave detail on exclusions and the rationale.
(Note: the Museum welcomes us to reach out with other research questions, including fashion and food practices.)
Ultimately, I changed Jessamine to Tom’s fiancee, rather than his wife; therefore, the Soldier was not family. It was, incidentally, a great decision for the tragedy, but also respectful.
Okay, now here’s a diversity-is-fun thing (but still humbling): I found an amazing Indigenous joke about light-skinned settlers, and borrowed it for a monologue. My sensitivity reader informed me my initial interpretation didn’t quite land, though to my delight, he was familiar with it. After some effort to revise, he pointed out that it might be impossible for me to fully recreate the humor because it was intrinsic to Indigenous being. (Mind you, I am part of the group the joke punched up at.) But I got close enough, and I loved it. I could write an entire essay about—and have in fact performed professional presentations on—how people use humor to change relationships with unchangeable stressors.
Laughter is powerful. Using humor cross-culturally is, I believe, a hardmode but sophisticated level of engagement. It was very deliberate, that one of the subtlest but surest signs of the Soldier’s love was how he laughed WITH Jessamine, when her people found a way to joke about the harm settlers did to them. I think it’s okay that neither the Soldier nor I fully understood the joke. And I believe it’s no accident, the Soldier makes audiences cry.
Little note: my sensitivity reader graciously caught and commented on a bunch of typos, clarity problems, and grammar fuckery, too. Also not the typical obligation, but I was grateful. He additionally marked the usage of ableist terms.
IV. DO YOU “HAVE TO” HIRE A SENSITIVITY READER
“No.” But trust, I have felt doubtful and defensive before, too. Consider: why are you asking?
- Do you hope people in the “other” group will purchase your work? Are they/part of your target audience?
- Do you think the harm of poor rep/stereotyping just isn’t that bad?
- Do you have enough close friends or relations of the other group to provide honest feedback and/or provide in/formal research content?
- Are you low-key hoping to ‘get away’ with asking forgiveness rather than permission?
- Are you scared you can’t afford to invest money in a career that might never pay out? (I get it.)
- Do you feel desperate and sad because querying/etc. sucks enough without somebody calling you problematic? (I empathize.)
- Are you concerned SRs don’t guarantee against cancelation or race/disabled/queer/other criticism? (You’re right.)
I’m trying to encourage deep thought. Defensiveness is something for you to work through, psychologically, spiritually, and best of all—privately.
Personally, it was cool to have a semi-structured way to learn about other groups of people and myself.
V. EMBARRASSMENT WILL BE OK
Just what it says. If you think about it, the physical act of cringing is almost indistinguishable from progressive muscle relaxation. (a joke) (but true)
Also, none of the sensitivity recommendations I received felt “too hard” per say. Sometimes I just disagreed; for example, my SR pointed out upset stomach after spice was rather stereotypical, but I felt entitled to keep it based on my hilarious personal experiences. (However, as of 12/26/22, I have learned this was harmful.)
I have, for the first time, partaken of Indian curry!
Which has regrettably sent me to the latrine in a hurry.
Alas, I’m outrun by like-minded Frenchmen in a flurry,
But I still say, dinner tasted better than the usual slurry.
So if you’ve got to soak up liquor tonight, I suggest curry.Poem by Victoria Shi for the Soldier
update 12/26/22: see note here
VI. REJECTION SENSITIVITY AND OTHER CONSIDERATIONS
Sensitivity readers aren’t the be-all. Nor is research. And again, even writing from within or proximate to a minoritized group hasn’t put me above criticism. There are scenarios where a sensitivity reader is unnecessary or unavailable. I’ve met men who write women incredibly well until it comes to race, and others with blind spots a barn-side wide. I’ve received sensitivity notes about offensive content unrelated to marginalizations (e.g., misandry, making white people uncomfortable, etc.), which I’ve both taken and left. And even with sensitivity notes about minorities, sometimes I’ve chosen not to revise. (More re: financial constraints below.)
But I do want to acknowledge rejection-sensitive dysphoria, trauma history, and other emotionally-dysregulating disabilities. Critique hits everyone different, and if my brain fell out of my ass the other month (joke!), I know someone else might have been more uncomfortable, or not known to ask follow-up questions. If you’re thinking of hiring a sensitivity reader, you may consider including notes about how you best receive feedback when you request services.
VII. MAKING COMMUNITY
The more I learn about Blackness and Indigeneity in the United States, the more I understand community is something that requires effort to cultivate. I’ve come to see hiring sensitivity readers not only as an ethical obligation, craft resource, and potentially fun, but also an act of community-building. And yeah, sometimes it comes at cost. Financial.
At the risk of wildly derailing this bloggity post, the best analogy I have comes from my friend Craig Pharaoh’s explaining Black and Asian American hostilities dating back to/circa the Los Angeles protests in 1992 and the conditions thereof. Unlike Black folx, Asian entrepreneurs (and other races) were able to obtain loans and start businesses in low-SES Black communities. However, most took the money back to their own communities to spend on education, goods, and services, instead of re-investing, contributing to the perpetuation of Black poverty. (I’m sure I’m butchering that, I’m open to correction.) I don’t find myself motivated by guilt; rather, the anecdote gave me a desire for connection and an understanding we’re all “in it together” economically. I assume your target audience includes people in the marginalizations you wrote. Consider being neighborly.
In my limited experience, few people understand “sense of community” within the creative arts more than sensitivity readers. Most of those I’ve seen offer need-based discounts on their services, and show great patience in metabolizing what (I think) is often harm into helping others make cool stuff.
VIII. LINKS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
- Basil Wright (sensitivity reader for Seminole, Blackness, chronic pain, and other issues) on Web & Twitter
- Daphne Fama (author of queer Filipino speculative fiction and podcaster) on RSS & Twitter
- Kate Heceta (sensitivity reader for contemporary Filipino, queer, the history of the Philippines, and other issues) on Web & Twitter
- Salt & Sage Books (extensive database of sensitivity readers for hire)
- Craig Pharaoh on TikTok and also Amazon with COONING: GUIDELINES FOR BLACK-AMERICAN SURVIVAL IN AMERICA
IX. ADDENDUM ABOUT CURRY JOKES
On 12/26/22, my friend Hana Soh on Twitter informed me that the joke about curry, from a non-Indian person, automatically reads as punching downward (as opposed to punching upward) and feeds into harmful stereotypes about Indian food. Check out our thread here. Hana may be open to further consultation.