In a national culture newly aware of micro-aggressions and offensive speech, what you say can easily strike the wrong tone. One increasingly common solution among US book publishers: Hire someone to be offended for you. “Sensitivity readers,” starting at a small fee of $250 a manuscript, read unpublished works and ask, ”Would my community find this disrespectful? Does this sound authentic?”
In January 2015, children’s book author Emily Jenkins and illustrator Sophie Blackall published A Fine Dessert, a picture book depicting four generations of American families making blackberry fool. The book included two slaves hiding in a cupboard, smiling and licking up dessert. Readers took note. In November, Jenkins, who is white, apologized for her “racial insensitivity” and said she donated her book fees to a campaign about diversity in books.
Then last year A Birthday Cake for George Washington, based on the story of the US president’s real-life slave Hercules, was pulled by publisher Scholastic just two weeks after it was released. Even though author Ramin Ganeshram, illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton, and editor Andrea Davis Pinkney are all people of color, the smiling slaves depicted throughout the book provoked fierce backlash.
Jennifer Baker, a freelance sensitivity reader and host of the podcast Minorities in Publishing, could have helped prevent these costly public outcries. She is African American, and acts as a sensitivity reader for books with black characters, especially from low-income backgrounds. Baker says that each sensitivity reader from the database maintained by Writing in the Margins is hired for a specific demographic to spot stereotypes and irresponsible portrayals. Though Baker believes it’s no substitute for finding authors who are from marginalized groups, she explains in our conversation below that she’s glad publishers are paying attention.
Could sensitivity reading be considered censorship?
Oh no, not at all. We’re just calling out something that’s always been talked about. … It’s not censorship to say, “Be more respectful, be more responsible, and consider how you’re representing other cultures.” And also to ask why are you doing so.
…It feels at times like people’s cultures and demographics are being used as experiments. If you’re a novelist and you want to do a prose poem, by all means do that. But it’s not the same to say, “I’m straight, and I want to write transgender, so let me just see how I can figure this out. I know I can crack that code.” It’s not the same.
What about a person of a minority identity, like an Asian American female, writing from the perspective of a majority identity, like a white character?
I personally have no issue with it. But when you look at the stats, you see that certain groups are writing more white characters than Asian characters, and that’s for entry. I’ve heard this from authors, specifically Asian American kids’ lit authors: “I purposefully had my first books feature white characters so that I can get a book deal. And then I can do the Asian characters I wanted to do because I would have been in.”
When it comes to the flip side of the marginalized taking on the majority, it doesn’t feel like you need to do research. You’re kind of embedded in that, you’re kind of taught to assimilate into that method of living.
Do you see any problems with helping a male white author tell someone else’s story? Why not tell people to just stop writing from the perspective of communities they’re not a part of?
The incentive for me is money. To be honest, I’ll do this for monetary reasons, because you’re going to respect that what I’m bringing to this deserves to be paid.
This is not always the case. [Some people] want to find the fix. I get, “Can you give me permission to do this, so I feel better about myself?” … I would hope out of all those people they learn something, and it wasn’t just the self-indulgence of, “Well, now I’ve got the black stamp of approval, so I’m good.”
If it was free, I wouldn’t do it.
What are the most egregious things you’ve read?
If I hadn’t signed a non disclosure agreement…!
One is a slave/slave master romance. That’s one of the worst ones.
The author had no idea what slavery was like, because the book really made it seem like it was a contemporary romance of an interracial couple whose parents just hated each other. It didn’t take into context power dynamics and slavery. It was very ridiculous.
It read like a contemporary romance, like, “Oh my father hates you, but you know, he’s just like that. My dad’s just like that, don’t worry about it.” I said, “This is slavery! No, no! It doesn’t work like—if his father hates the slave, that’s bad! It’s deadly.” The author was not cognizant of that.
In another one, in present day, [the author] made all the black characters sound like Mammy from Gone with the Wind. They were like, “Well gee! I wonders what they goin’ do.” It was horrible. That was the first one I ever got, and it was the worst one.
What about less obvious instances?
This morning I read a picture book, it was pretty well done. It’s a slave book, and she put quotation marks around the word “owned.” I said, that’s not something you put quotation marks around. It’s slavery. It’s evident. It’s what happened.
That’s very minor in the grand scheme of things.
In another, a graphic novel, they were very concerned about how they presented black people but not about how they represented native Americans. And I’m not native American at all, but I was able to say, you should get someone who is native American to review this, because you said something using the word “savage.”
Or in another book—again this pertains to native Americans—they were smiling and talking about George Washington. And I was like, “No!” (laughs) You cannot have pictures of smiling native Americans talking about George Washington. That’s not OK.
Where did the phrase “sensitivity reader” come from? Could it have a negative connotation?
The act of sensitivity reading is not new. This has gone on for like two decades, but now it’s being considered part of the production process in publishing. A few years ago a smaller publisher—I forget the name—got backlash for LGBTQ lit that it did.
They said, well, we want to find sensitivity readers. This was maybe two years ago when I first heard the term.
But I agree with you. It has negative connotations. When you’re marginalized, you’re told you’re too sensitive.
So maybe I’m a cultural reviewer in that regard. It’s not that different from a copyeditor who’s very good with grammar that they would clean up your stuff. We’re cleaning it up for racist, homophobic, transphobic, able-ist, Islamophobic material.
Let’s say a white male writer writes about women. Should he hire female sensitivity readers?
It couldn’t hurt. Yes, why not bring women?
I should bring men if I’m writing men. I should get a guy, because I could bring in overly feminine attributes for that character. There’s nothing wrong with being femme, but if I didn’t intend for this character to be femme, and I’m presenting that on the page, a man might catch that faster than a woman would.
This interview has been edited and condensed.