Why You Need A Sensitivity Reader (aka Don’t Ask Me To Do Emotional Labor For Free)

black woman readingA few months ago, a white author posted a comment in one of the Facebook groups I moderate seeking a beta reader for the steampunk story he was writing. Because his main character is Asian and he clearly is not, he was interested in finding a person of color to read the story. My response was “hire an Asian sensitivity reader.”

What’s a sensitivity reader, you ask? That’s a person who belongs to the marginalized group that you’re writing about who will agree to read your piece in exchange for money. They’re everywhere, these sensitivity readers. They do the emotional labor that, in the past, you may have asked others to do for you for free. The author’s response? “My story doesn’t need that.” K.

When he posted a similar request for a POC beta reader last weekend (with the added antagonistic remark about just being an “old white guy” who’s been told he shouldn’t write about prejudice, so please, help him understand!), I deleted it. Like clockwork — because if nothing else, the train from Entitlementville is ALWAYS on schedule — I get an instant message asking why his comment was 86’d. “Seems like this is a recurring theme,” he says. (I’ve never deleted anything of his before but sure, if that’s the angle you want to play, go for it.)

I told him his most recent request was a repeat of his first one and that this new one lacked the basic distinctions that need to be made when talking about prejudice, racism and discrimination. “No one comes to our page to teach (for free), which is why I’ve suggested hiring a sensitivity reader,” I wrote.

His response was along the lines of “how will I learn if no one is willing to teach me?” Because we’re just going to pretend that Google isn’t a thing that exists, huh?

“There are people to follow who will give you this information,” I fired back. “They’re just not in our group.”

He”thanked” me in a way that made it clear he didn’t agree with what I was saying, as if I were somehow in the wrong for being aggravated by his dismissal of my initial advice and his repeat request, and left our group. Apparently, me and other people of color in this group were supposed to be his own personal assortment of marginalized Pokemon that he can call on whenever he’s too lazy to do his own work….didn’t I know?

This is the thing that annoys me about white authors who write about topics they don’t know anything about. If you’ve never fully experienced racism to know how it differs from prejudice, A) don’t write about it and B) don’t be so cheap that you’re unwilling to hire the appropriate people to make your product the best it can be before unleashing on the public. If you’re writing on a topic that is above your pay grade or level of understanding, it’s YOUR JOB to work hard to make your piece better and/or to be willing to pay people to help you make your work better. That’s it. Point blank. Period.

No one else is responsible for putting their mental well-being on the line to have some basic Racism 101 conversation with you. That’s what sites like Everyday Feminism are for. More on why we need more sensitivity readers here. Take note and stay out of my DMs.

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