Written by Kiran Gokal
With the growing awareness of diversity in books, and more importantly, accurate representations, the need for sensitivity readers has grown substantially. A sensitivity reader is pretty much exactly what you hear: they are readers who read to minimize sensitivity. The practice is done on a manuscript to eradicate any internalized bias, stereotyping, and language that can be offensive to marginalized groups that are represented in the text. Fortunately, it is becoming a crucial part in the process of today’s publishing industry. Alongside the kick-off of We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit organization aimed at supporting writers from marginalized groups and advocating for publishing of more diverse books, the publication numbers for books of this sort increased in 2014 to 28% after a decade of stagnation. Following incidents of backlash from readers of books with problematic portrayals, sensitivity readers became an increasingly normalized practice.
Dhonielle Clayton, one of the chief executives of We Need Diverse Books and author of fantasy novel The Belles, spoke to Vulture about her experience as a sensitivity reader, including her thoughts on the process, the experience, and the skepticism surrounding it. Clayton began sensitivity reading just as the industry was starting to change and there was a spike in the number of books written by white authors about characters of color. Although the inclusivity of characters of color is a very positive and progressive change, I, like Clayton and many others, believe there should also be an increase in the number of books written and published by authors of color. Clayton believes sensitivity reading to be “a Band-Aid over a hemorrhaging problem in our industry,” and that problem is the “systematic erasure and blockage of people of color from the publishing industry”—a worse kind of censorship than what sensitivity reading was coined as.
The fear of censorship regarding sensitivity reading comes from the fear that it will prevent authors from writing characters that are inherently prejudiced or flawed. However, sensitivity reading would not hinder the existence of such characters as long as it is done well. Take these two young adult best sellers for example: Carve the Mark by renowned author of the Divergent trilogy, Victoria Roth, was caught under heat when her book was interpreted as racist due to the portrayal of a darker-skinned race as the “savage race.” Roth has since posted her explanation of this issue, and others, that arose from readers of her books. Nevertheless, such a notion could have definitely been prevented with the help of sensitivity reading. On the other hand, The Winners Curse by Mary Rutkoski—an example Clayton brings up in her interview—follows a problematic premise, a girl who buys a slave, but because Rutkoski has “analyzed power and what power is in a narrative…[she knows] how to dismantle these things on the page.” Rutkoski’s novel strips the main character of her white power and flips it around in a fashion that takes a very problematic story and says something important about it instead of perpetuating it.
Another form of censorship that is more apparent is the lack of authors of color being published in comparison to white authors. In 2016, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) released a set of statistics on the number of children’s books by and about people of color and found that the number began to increase in 2014 after two decades of stagnation and in 2016 jumped to 28%—the highest number recorded since 1994. However, the number of books written by people of color did not keep pace: it was recorded at 6%. There is an obvious issue here. Normalizing and utilizing sensitivity reading is a big, positive step in solving this issue —but we can’t let the progress cease. Organizations such as We Need Diverse Books have the potential to foster the advocacy for more diverse books and authors.