Listening 101 or What Happens When Your Sensitivity Reader Tells You The Book is Hot Garbage

This was inspired in part  by Justine’s post on writing protagonists of color when you’re white. I’m going to frame this all from the perspective of a Black American sensitivity reader because well…that’s what I am. Speaking for myself and all of that jazz. Most of the projects I see suffer from the relatively minor problem of Black characters being less developed than white characters (I say minor because that is at least fixable) but occasionally I get a project where the Black characters are a pastiche of racist stereotypes.

Take a little Mammy, throw in some Jezebel, and add self loathing then call them complex! No. Nope. That’s not complex, that’s a hot mess. Often a hot mess that reflects the writer’s discomfort with the community they have decided to include that ends up no longer being a private problem. Whether it’s a peculiar fetish for writing white leads that are so irresistible to characters of color that they give up friends, family, and safety, or for only writing characters of color that end up sacrificed to save a white lead’s comfort, writers unconsciously tell on themselves. Their idea of diversity isn’t inclusive, it’s just plain offensive.

Not Everyone Can Write The Other

There’s often a hesitance to tell white writers that they shouldn’t include characters of color. After all better representation for marginalized communities hinges on people with privilege using it for the greater good. I understand that logic, once upon a time I espoused it myself. But, I’ve seen too many writers hop on the so called diversity train without bothering to do even the most basic research. They will pick a majority POC city like Chicago, choose an area that’s racially mixed but largely Black and Latino, then center the story on white characters. If they do incorporate a character of color that character knows no other people of color, has no relatives or friends, no actual community other than the white leads. That’s not a character, that’s a prop.

If you do not know that Black people in Chicago (or anywhere) have family, friends, coworkers that look like them then you’re not writing people. If you don’t think of  Black people as having a community that they speak with (and of) regularly then frankly you have no business writing a Black character. If your idea of a “complex” Black female character is one that wants to be white, or one that is so enamored with white people that she ignores their racism then you don’t want diversity. You want a conveniently placed token that will shield you from any criticism.

Put Those Pearls Down Instead of Clutching Them

The “Well I tried and no one like it, so I’m scared to try again!” defense is complete and total bullshit. It’s the kind of manipulative horseshit that we wouldn’t, (and shouldn’t) accept from a male writer who claimed he can’t write women. Just like you would respond to any other writing critique by trying to do better, the solution to being told your character is a racist trope isn’t tears and pearl clutching. It’s an apology and an attempt to do better. Except that doing better isn’t a matter of making one or two changes and putting the same sad sack of a character on the pages of the next book.

Being Inclusive is Work

Doing better looks more like practice, in that imperfect unpublished first draft way. It means taking Writing The Other workshops, reading the works of writers from the community you want to write about, talking to people from that community, and going to those areas in cities that might not have a lot of people that look like you. It means not only hiring a sensitivity reader, it also means listening to that reader even when they tell you that the book sucks.

Think of it like getting grades in school.  When your 9th grade English teacher broke the news that a 3-5 paragraph essay wasn’t the same as a quality research paper did you fight with them and insist that they were wrong? Or did you have to learn how to write a good research paper?

Listening is Fundamental

You have to be willing to listen to your sensitivity reader/s or you’re going to be churning out the same terrible characters over and over again. And no one needs that, no community is helped by that, in fact instead of promoting diversity you’re part of the problem you claim to be fighting.

Racism doesn’t have to be overt to be real.

It’s hard to hear that your work is offensive, there’s a tendency to assume that real racism is only the kind that plays out with slurs and violence. But the sad reality is that the passive racism that makes those events possible is far more common, and much more harmful on a societal scale. No one who thought crack was worse than cocaine in the 80’s would have come out and said it was about race. After all, crack was a problem in violent inner city communities, cocaine was just something foolish rich people dabbled in. Harmlessly. Same drug, but the difference in association led to the War On Drugs completely with sentencing guidelines that meant someone with crack went to jail, while cocaine meant rehab. Structural racism at its finest, and with no need to admit it.

Your book sucks, now what?

You can try to fix it, but sometimes what you wrote is beyond repair. Maybe your plot replicates racist narratives, maybe you are telling a story about a sensitive topic that simply isn’t your story to tell. Sometimes all you can do is take the loss, dump the manuscript (or take out your attempt at diversity) and move on. This is no different than shelving a book that you can’t sell because there are too many vampire novels out for it to do well. There are enough books that feed racist stereotypes. No genre needs more of them.








2 thoughts on “Listening 101 or What Happens When Your Sensitivity Reader Tells You The Book is Hot Garbage

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s