“I get asked by a lot of reporters and Tweeters why I’m so invested with Diversity…I really hate the word ‘diversity.’ It suggests something other, something special, it’s rare—it’s diversity! It suggests that there’s something unusual about telling stories about women or people of color, of LGBT characters on tv. I have a different word. I call it normalizing. I am making tv look the way the world looks.
“…you should get to turn on your tv and see your tribe. And your tribe can be any kind of person, anyone you identify with, anyone who feels like you, who feels like home, who feels like truth.”Shonda Rhimes, Year of Yes: How to Dance it Out, Stand in the Sun, and Be your own person
While Black Lives Matter has been around for a few years now, the recent protests in the name of ending systematic and institutional racism in the U.S. as well as the rest of the Western world as well as an end to police brutality highlights some of our responsibilities as writers.
One thing being called for again and again is representation. This isn’t new, and it doesn’t stop just at ensuring you have a racially diverse cast of characters. Diversity means characters who are differently abled, who think differently, who identify differently than the heteronormative, who have different beliefs, and so on.
Thus, when we write, we need look around us and remember that we don’t live in a world or a community where everyone is just men, just women, just Christian, just straight, just white, just able-bodied, and so on. Whether you know it or not, someone near you us living with a mental illness, or might be secretly contemplating their sexuality, for example.
The world is a rich tapestry, compiled of many beautiful beings, everyone different from one another. And as writers who are creating worlds, whether contemporary or completely fictitious in every way, it is still our job to remember to weave in that tapestry into your stories.
However, this can actually be done incorrectly. No matter how well-intentions we are, or how well read-up we think we are, there are just something we’re going to get wrong. And that is why we need Sensitivity Readers.
What is a Sensitivity Reader
A sensitivity reader is somewhere between a beta reader/critique partner and a developmental editor, though perhaps more toward the critique partner than anything. There are people who charge for their services, and then there are others who happily offer to read a piece for free.
A sensitivity reader will read a manuscript of an author who has characters or cultures included in their stories which are “other” to the author.
For example, an active and heterosexual author writing an asexual character and unknowningly getting that character confused with aromantic. This author would want a sensitivity reader who is asexual to read over the manuscript to ensure that no harmful tropes were used or inaccurate portrayals were depicted.
Likewise, if a white author has a black character, or an indigenous character, a sensitivity reader would be required to make sure unintentional racist language or depictions weren’t used. There are many tropes that are used by folx who think that they’re getting it right, but don’t realize that what they’re saying is actually problematic.
Sensitivity readers can be extremely helpful in pointing out when these problematic accidents happen so you can do your research and learn how to fix it. I highly recommend starting with Writing the Other, a website that provides courses and training to write about characters who are of another race, another culture, or who have a different sexuality or are differently abled, to list a few. You can explore their website here.
Why You Should Have a Sensitivity Reader
This is a debate I’ve come across in many writing forums and online writing groups. A common defense or suggestion is that people are being too sensitive as it is, and that we should be able to write whatever we want to write.
I can’t argue that. We should be able to write what we want to write. However, how responsible of a human being you want to be comes down to why you’re writing. For many people, they feel that they have a burning desire to change the world through their stories. They want to affect people and inspire them. So you have to ask yourself what inspirational good are you wanting to bring forth in the world?
If we are looking at our stories as inspiration, and thus, a form of healing and medicine for someone who might need to hear what we have to say, then we need to look at the first rule of medicine: do no harm.
While “writing what you know” might be a contemporary white and able-bodied community, it’s putting out a statement that that is the norm. Except that it isn’t the norm. As I mentioned before, everyone is different.
The Debate: Appropriation
Appropriation is a heavy concept. When there is appropriation, it means that someone of a dominating race/culture/ethnicity/gender/sex/religion/etc. (we’ll use “background” as shorthand from here on out) is claiming something from an oppressed background for their own uses, while simultaneously or historically condemning the use of that thing by the original users.
That might sound somewhat obscure.
For example, using Native American headdresses as Halloween costumes by white people. In a historic context, Europeans came to the Americas and did everything they could to smother Native American tribes and cultures out, including stealing children and forcing them to forget their own language and raising them in European-style education. For Native Americans to be scorned, shunned, and killed for participating in their tribal cultures, only to have parts of their cultures revived so they can be used as costumes is insulting and damaging. It puts forward the statement that it’s alright for white people do use these things, but not for the people from whom the headdresses originated.
What does appropriation have to do with writing?
The debate comes in to suggest that people who are outside of a background shouldn’t be able to write about that background. It is muting the voices of those of that background in favor for the dominant voice.
During last week’s #RaiseMelanatedVoices, the idea was that white folx and business owners refrained from promoting their own content and instead shared content from BIPOC in order to help their voices be heard. They are the ones who are being discriminated against and killed, and thus, they are the ones who need to be taking the stage. If white folx did create content, it was to be in light of the voices of BIPOC folx, regarding what they were saying.
In this way, BIPOC were hopefully allowed a better platform to express exactly what the problems are from their direct experience, and what they needed in order to heal from these experiences, or at least, start the healing process.
With this example in mind, what good can a white person do when writing a racially minority character? For one, the author in this example doesn’t have the direct experience to draw from. For another, by putting this particular portrayal out there, they are adding their voice to the crowd of people who are already struggling to be heard.
Some call this appropriation.
Again, the rebuttal for this is that if we are authors, shouldn’t we be allowed to extend ourselves into someone else’s shoes and write about them? Isn’t that what writing is about: living the lives of people other than ourselves?
Over the years I have read countless arguments from all backgrounds, and found equally people saying of course, that is your responsibility as a writer to extend yourself. Both sides don’t dispute this. As far as I can tell, there are equal voices saying but only extend yourself within the context of your own background, so to speak, so others can have their voices heard; versus extend yourself as far as your imagination will go.
Furthermore, I have heard arguments made on both sides from all backgrounds. I have read arguments from lesbians telling straight writers that they don’t care so long as there’s more lesbian literature out there. Please note, I understand and am not falling into tokenism. I have read compelling arguments for and against, with each side made up of the same aforementioned rich tapestry.
So which is right? I’m going to let you do your own research and educate yourself.
However, if you choose to extend yourself as far as your imagination can take you, then it is essential that you have a sensitivity reader.
How to Find a Sensitivity Reader
There are a few ways you can find a sensitivity reader for your piece, though it is essential that you make sure you’ve got the right person for your story.
I have read horror stories of writers handing their work over to a sensitivity reader who focused on the wrong group of people in the story and then accused the writer of some form of ism. A specific example I’m thinking of was a lesbian writer who wrote an LGBTQ story that had a BIPOC character who was also LGBTQ (I don’t remember the details or who fell into what specific category). The sensitivity reader focused mostly on the LGBTQ group rather than the BIPOC character who the author was worried about getting right and insisted that the author was homophobic and had no business writing an LGBTQ piece.
I am not telling you this to put you off, but I am telling you this to make sure you do your homework when it comes to finding the right sensitivity reader for you. Going through a service and even paying someone can be the difference between finding a reader with a vendetta to finding a constructive critique partner who will help you avoid doing harm.
In the Resources section of this post, at the bottom, I’ve added some links to learn more about sensitivity readers, some tropes to avoid, as well as where you can find sensitivity readers.
Step 1: Notice
Take a look at the stories you’ve written over the years, published or just for funsies. Look at your characters and the worlds they live in. Ask yourself how diverse your characters are. Ask yourself your motive for including your diverse characters.
This exercise is simply to make yourself aware of what you’re doing. For example, when I first did this years ago, I realized that every single main character I had was a male. That seemed ridiculous because I’m a woman. But a male protagonist was the default for me because that was what I saw most represented in books and media.
Then I took one of my male protagonists on a project I was working on and starting to loose my passion for, and changed him out for a woman. The project completely blossomed, and I was suddenly in love with it again. This was my personal experience. Not everyone is going to have the same experience.
Step 2: Flip It
However, the next step of your homework is to take something you notice to be recurrent in your stories, and see if you can change a character. How does it feel? What does it do for the story? How does it change the message behind it? Who does it benefit?
Step 3: Do Your Homework
The final piece of homework is to do some research. Look at harmful tropes that are used, even some seemingly positive tropes (for example, the “smart Asian” trope puts Asian folx in a positive light, but is still a stereotype and actually affects them in higher education. Thus, perpetuating this stereotype is harmful).
Here are some resources to get you started.
Here are some resources to help you learn about how to go about exploring “otherness” in your writing. I put “other” in quotations because I’m not personally excited about the term. I feel that it creates a divide and a sense of alien. But, at the same time, I don’t have a better term for it. If someone has a better term, please feel free to correct me. I will happily replace it.
After the links to resources regarding writing specifically, I have a list of books written by people outside the homogenized heteronormative narrative that are totally worth your time.
WriteInTheMargins.org – at the time of writing and posting this blog, this website is under construction, though please try it. Hopefully it will be back up and running when you check it out.
TheShrinkette – Sensitivity Reading Services
Patrice Williams Marks – Expert Sensitivity Reader and Reviewer Service (Sensitivity Check) for Authors/Writers, Corporations, Ad Agencies, Game Developers
Reading (As)(I)an (Am)Erica – Sensitivity Reader Services
Tropes are cliches and stereotypes. There are some that are problematic. A good place to start is with Tvtropes, which is a rabbit hold. Be prepared.
“So You Want to/Avoid Unfortunate Implications” Tv Tropes
“Race, Disability, Ugliness, and Other Villain Tropes We Can Lose” by Enobong Essien, Book Riot
“Writing People of Color” by MariNaomi – this is a brilliant read. Truly.
“How Not to Write People of Color” by Vanessa Willoughby, Bookriot
TvTropes – Race Tropes
“Racial Tropes and Tokenism” by Renee Crozier
“Portrayal of Male Minorities” by Alexyss Johnson, Hypermasculinity and Racism in Film
“Evolution of Racial Hypermasculinity” by Adam Cheek, Hypermasculinity and Racism in Film
AllTheTropes.Fandom – Race Tropes
AllTheTropes.Fandom – Language Tropes
“5 Racist Tropes Hollywood Won’t Let Die” by Michael Dawson, Cracked
AllTheTropes.Fandom – Sex Tropes – This is both sex in the biological sense and sex as in the act. I started going through it and dividing what was useful for this section but there were too many, so I am just putting the general Index here.
TVTropes – Transgender
“5 LGBTQ Tropes & Stereotypes To Stop Perpetuating” by Marissa Higgins, Bustle
“7 Trans Media Tropes That Need to Stop” by James St. James, Everyday Feminism
“17 LGBTQ Tropes Hollywood Needs to Retire” by Tracy E. Gilchrist and Daniel Reynolds, Advocate
“11 Stereotypes People Should Stop Believing About the LGBTQ Community” by Ashley Moor, Best Life Online
“Trans Tropes That Have Go to Go (As Told by Trans Readers)” by Avery, Book Deviant
“LGBTQ+ Tropes on TV Need to Stop” by Igna Parkel, TV Fanatic
Mental Illness Tropes
AllTheTropes.Fandom – Madness Tropes
AllTheTropes.Fandom – Split-Personality Tropes
AllTheTropes.Fandom – Stupidity Tropes – please note, I’m not saying that a person who has a mental illness is stupid. However, there are a lot of problematic tropes that do confuse mental illness, mental disability, and low IQ. These are all separate.
AllTheTropes.Fandom – This Is Your Index on Drugs – note: I put this in here with the idea of looking at addiction.
“10 Mental Health Tropes I Hate in Fiction” by Selena Jeckert
“Tropes vs. People With Mental Health Difficulties” by Mark Brown
“What TV Gets Wrong About Mental Illness” by Angelica Jade Bastién, Vulture
“Split and Mental Health Tropes – A Disaster For Those Living with MH” by Dominick Evans, Center for Disability Rights
“What to Consider When Writing Mental Illness” by Robert Wood, Standout Books
“How Cinema Stigmatizes Mental Illness” by Arwa Haider, BBC Culture
“Mental Health Representation in Games” Checkpoint (author unfound)
“Please Stop Using My Mental Health for Your Fantasies” by Kylie Rodriguez, medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PsyD, CRNP, ACRN, CPH, Healthline
“’Super OCD’: The Problem With Mental Health Tropes” by Fletcher Wortmann, Psychology Today
“Advanced Writing Tips: Problematic and Irritating Disability Tropes to Avoid in Writing” by Arie Farnam
“4 Tropes to Avoid when Your Villain Has a Disability” by Allison Alexander, MythosInk
“Disability Tropes 101: Overcoming” by Derek Newman-Stille, Spoonie Author Network
Podcast Episode: “Harmful Disability Tropes” by Oren Ashkenazi, Chris Winkle, and Fay Onyx, Mythcreants
“Five Common Harmful Representations of Disability” by Fay Onyx, Mythcreants blog
“Book Characters with Disabilities – Stop the Cliches!” by Beth Finke, Easter Seals
“Discussion: Disability Tropes” on Disability in Kidlit
“Common Portrayals of Persons with Disabilities” MediaSmarts
Video conversation “Why Are Disability Cliches So Destructive for the Community?” Aljazeera
“Getting it Wrong – Writing Disability in Fiction” by Holly Kench, Visibility Fiction
“19 Female Character Stereotypes or Tropes to Avoid” by Cindy Grigg
“Tarantino’s Women” by Benjamin Labowitz, Hypermasculinity and Racism in Film
“Feminism” by Karan Sharma, Hypermasculinity and Racism in Film
“Portrayal of Male Minorities” by Alexyss Johnson, Hypermasculinity and Racism in Film
“Evolution of Racial Hypermasculinity” by Adam Cheek, Hypermasculinity and Racism in Film
AllTheTropes.Fandom – Gender Tropes
AllTheTropes.Fandom – Sex Tropes – This is both sex in the biological sense and sex as in the act. I started going through it and dividing what was useful for this section but there were too many, so I am just putting the general Index here. There are items in this list which include tropes like “Men are Always Eager,” which is why I’m leaving this link here.
“5 Gendered Workplace Tropes To Stop Perpetuating” by Eliza Castile, Bustle
Podcast Episode “Women in Crime Novels: ‘Terrible Cliches’” Talk of the Nation
“7 Sexist TV and Movie Stereotypes That Men Still Don’t Notice” Digital Spy
“10 Media Tropes That Just Need to Die Already” by The Representation Project
“Common Stereotypes of Men in Media” on MediaSmarts
TVTropes – Men Are the Expendable Gender
“3 Problematic Male Tropes We Need to Stop Writing” by Lindy on Medium
“Problematic Tropes” A collection of series exploring problematic tropes including Toxic Masculinity and Toxic Femininity, Writers’ HQ
On Sensitivity Readers
“Vetting for Stereotypes: Meet Publishing’s ‘Sensitivity Reader’” by Alison Flood, The Guardian
“The Problem with Sensitivity Readers Isn’t What You Think” by Anne Hacker, Writer’s Digest
“Sensitivity Readers! What Are They Good For? (A Lot.)” by James Tilton, Publishers Weekly
“On the Use of Sensitivity Readers in Publishing: A Writer, Reader, and Publisher Weigh In” by Christine Ro, Lithub
“What a Sensitivity Reader Is (and Isn’t) and How to Hire One” by Natalia Sylvester, Writer Unboxed
“All You Need to Know About Sensitivity Reads” by Justina Ireland/Stacy Lee – Note: I’m not sure of the author of this article. The footer reads Justina Ireland, but at the top it says Stacy Lee. I have had an article credited to me accidentally before by simply checking the wrong box during publication, so I’m not sure which of these people is the author.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The following are by Toni Morrison:
- The Bluest Eye
- Song of Solomon
- Note – this is just a few of Morrison’s fiction pieces. She is an author whose fiction and nonfiction are worth reading—nay, essential.
Midnight’s Children by Salmond Rushdi
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis
Planetfall by Emma Newman
The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Fried Green Tomatoes of the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg
Other Helpful Links
American Indians in Children’s Literature
“What Are Sensitivity Readers? (And Should Authors Use Them?)”, Reedsy
Children’s Books Council: CBC Diversity Resources for Writers – advice not just for children authors.
“Transracial Writing for the Sincere” by Nisi Shawl
“Writing Race: A Checklist for Writers” by Mitali Perkins
“Writing with Diversity Resources” by Malinda Lo – this page is gold. Seriously.
“Important Books About Identity” by Malinda Lo
“What is ‘Good’ LGBTQ in YA?” by Malinda Lo
“#OwnVoices: Why We Need Diverse Authors in Children’s Literature” by Kayla Whaley