On Diverse Characters and Sensitivity Reading

This month I have the fantastic opportunity to write an article for an author and writing advocate whom I greatly admire. We’ll link the article when it’s ready; it should be published by mid-October. It is about representation and diversity in writing.

Now, I use diverse casts in all of my stories, but that comes naturally to me because I am myself diverse. (For those unfamiliar, I am Jamaican, African, Taíno, English, Lebanese, and Indonesian; and I am also neurodivergent, demisexual, and lower-class.) But as I write about what to do and what not to do when writing underrepresented and marginalized characters, I’m realizing that things that are common sense to me are not common sense to everyone, especially not the majority.

Something that doesn’t get talked about as much as it should is the connection between cultural appropriation and entitlement. So many writers think that because a culture exists, that culture can be written about freely, with no mind to the people of that culture. Just because there are writings and practices and mythologies, and just because it’s cool, that culture should be available for use in any way whatsoever.

That’s not the case. A culture belongs to the people who build and nurture it. It doesn’t belong to the majority. If the majority wants to write about it, then they should approach the culture as a borrower, as a student, first asking for permission and then seeking advice on how to portray the culture and its customs accurately.

I did that when writing a Native protagonist, despite already knowing some things due to being Taíno. I researched that particular tribe and I asked questions of people related to it. In fact, I’m still researching. It’s been eight nor nine months. But this character, just like all my others, is one I want to get right.

Compare that to throwing in a diverse character just because it’s the “in” thing or because you think the culture is awesome or because you think you’ll get more readers that way. Representation is about righting wrongs. It’s about admitting that yes, we used to portray such-and-such a character as a caricature, but we see that that was harmful to the culture, and we are fixing it now by researching and being courteous to those people that we damaged.

It is not about dressing up your story with “exotic” characters and elements. It is not about stealing some things from a culture (katanas, anyone?) but leaving out the rest.

Lately there’s been a trend around sensitivity reading. It’s now a service that many editors and beta readers offer. The problem is that editing has always been a function of the majority; there still are very few people-of-color, non-hetero, or neurodivergent editors, just to name a few. So you have editors who have no experience being in a marginalized group, and they charge more for this service of advising on how well an author handled sensitive cultural issues. Majority members who have enough familiarity with such issues will vastly be the exception, not the rule.

So why not look for a diverse editor? Editors from underrepresented groups are just as talented in editing, if not more so due to the uphill battles we face. Even the most diligent research is not a substitute for experience. Anything less becomes little more than an echo chamber for the author, supplying unsubstantiated approval for things neither author nor editor truly understand.

When you look for a sensitivity reader, pick one from the out-group that your story most centers on. That way, you can be better assured of the reader’s familiarity with the sensitive subject matter; and there’s never any harm in supporting other cultures. Your story, whether realistic fiction or fantasy or even nonfiction, will be much more accurate and believable for it, and your readers, both majority and minority, will thank you.