Ruminations Part 3 – Sensitivity Readers, Part 3 – I Take a “Writing the Other” class

My first rumination can be found at Ruminations Part I – “Your eyes are completely healed”
My second at Ruminations Part 2 – Numbers lead to informed decisions
Rumination Part 3-1 is Ruminations Part 3 – Sensitivity Readers, Part 1
Rumination Part 3-2 is Ruminations Part 3 – Sensitivity Readers, Part 2

Now, once you have decided these things, don’t stop and explain them to the reader. Simply develop a feel for the character’s outlook, and try to write from that outlook. To learn how to do this, read books produced by other cultures and eras, not just fiction, but also biographies, travelogues, history, letters: everything from the Venerable Bede to Pliny the Younger to Ben Franklin’s Autobiography to the sayings of Chuang Tzu to Xenophon’s Anabasis. Observe the details. What does the author take for granted? What is familiar to him and what is strange? How does he perceived himself? From this you may learn something about creating characters who are not yourself. Every professional writer must do this. – from On Writing Science Fiction: The Editors Strike Back

I took a four-week “writing the other” class led by two sensitivity readers a while back. It was about how to properly craft a character with a background with whom the author is unfamiliar.

What became obvious is the instructors were, in my opinion, unqualified. They had no anthro, linguistic, socio, or related training. It seemed their training came from being of a certain racial/ethnic group.

And because I’m a full-blooded Italian who’s never set foot in Italy, I am, of course, unquestionably qualified to speak for the experiences of all Italians everywhere throughout all time.

It’s a wonderful world, ain’t it?

At this point in history…
A writer including a character with an unfamiliar background and getting published is something which could only happen at this point in history (barring vanity publishing) because only at this point in history are people writing stuff and putting it out there with no to little knowledge of what they’re writing about. That attitude among writers and my experience (so far) of sensitivity readers reminds me of my business days when all you needed to claim expertise was to state you were an expert louder than the person sitting next to you.

The need for sensitivity readers as such could only exist if a writer is so egotistical as to think they don’t need to do research on a principle, primary, main, or even secondary character’s experience, so vain as to believe they could write an entire novel using a character whose life experience is totally different from their own without immersing themself in that character’s experience, and if that’s the case that writer/author is an idiot (I use the term in the generic sense, not as an insult to my fellow less intelligented people).

Personally, I can’t imagine writing something for publication and, should something be a critical piece of the story, not having it vetted by people who are more knowledgeable than I on that critical piece (also remember, one of my foundation beliefs is that everyone knows more about everything than I do (some may consider this post proof of that). I tend to research the minutest details to make sure no inaccuracy slows my reader down).

The builder who does not know the material he works with courts disaster. – Lajos Egri, The Art of Dramatic Writing

The weaponry in The Augmented Man came from talking with several local, state, and federal armorers, hunters, military, special forces, weapons research individuals, sharpshooters, et cetera. IE, I researched the hell out of it.

Ditto the combat scenes, ditto the helicopter scenes, ditto the…

When asked if I would get a sensitivity reader for Empty Sky, I asked “Why?”

“Because you mention Native Americans.”

Which Nation should I talk with?

“The ones mentioned in the book.”

No specific Native Americans or people are mentioned in the book. The languages I use are an amalgam of any number of languages I’ve studied.


But while we’re on the subject, you’re not concerned about Sensitivity Readers for the variety of backgrounds mentioned? Norse? Egyptian? Greek? Rich? Chicagoan? Orphan? Michigan’s UP? Dartmouth students? Abandoned? Motherless? Widower? Dog?

And how come nobody took umbrage at the one black character in the book who plays a major supporting role in the story?

Would Othello have been Othello if he wasn’t Othello?

You called an African-American character “Buck”?
One of the sensitivity readers referenced her uncle as a “Buck” in the class. It greatly confused me. Isn’t that a racial slur? Or is this one of those “I can call an Italian (remember, I’m full-blooded Italian) a Wop but you can’t, he can call another black person a Nigger but I can’t, … ? (and for the record, the use of “Nigger” or any racial or ethnic epithet or any variation outside of fiction sickens me).

Watch Tiffany Haddish Presents: They Ready on Netflix should you get a chance. Godfrey’s set is over the top hilarious, and the one which I remember most vividly is Tony Woods, especially from 11-14:15m in. This 3+ minutes is educational in a way only good comedy can educate. It ends with Woods saying “You mean these people got a word they can call each other but ain’t nobody else allowed to use it? … But it felt good to be white for a little bit.”

I asked the instructors “Would Othello have been Othello if he wasn’t Othello?”

What? We don’t understand the question.

Shakespeare could have written Othello as someone seven-feet tall, two-feet tall, as having Asian features, et cetera, and he didn’t because there were no such people in Venice with any kind of military training at the time the play takes place (at least not according to historical record).

But there were Moors.

No fool Shakespeare, he used what he had on hand to tell his story. There was no prejudice or bigotry involved because there weren’t enough Moors in Venice for prejudice and bigotry to exist. It’s awfully difficult to be bigoted and prejudiced to a OneOf. You may not like them, but you’ve got to work hard to be prejudiced and bigoted towards an individual when there’s not enough of said individual’s racial/ethnic group for a cultural bias to form.

There’s a moral here; Use a character that works as required in the story you’re writing, give said character attributes necessary to fulfill the role they’re given in the story.

What’s NPR got to do with this?
NPR’s 1 June 2021 MarketPlace did a segment on media production budget inequities for POC. Up around 7m16s I heard something interesting; a black woman talked about the Hollywood C-suite needing more African-American people so more African-American shows will be greenlit.

Not more POC so more POC shows will get greenlit, more African-American so more African-American programs will get greenlit.

Let’s look at two big flaws in this. One is basic business economics; you get a large enough audience for anything and it’ll get greenlit. Do you see lots of white-audience movies and shows coming out of India? Japan? Pick a place, and no, you don’t. If there was a big enough audience for POC shows in America, they would be greenlit by whoever is calling the shots because the only way whoever is calling the shots keeps their job is to make money and the only way to make money is to be profitable and the only way to be profitable is to produce what the market wants.

Want more POC behind the camera? Have more POC making movies and shows the market wants. Simple as that. The problem isn’t who’s in the C-suite, it’s who’s holding the remote. It’s sad, I’m not thrilled by it, but I routinely watch foreign movies and shows to learn other culture’s experiences and attitudes.

A friend and I watched a foreign language film with captions on. It was just the two of us, no other noises around. My friend raised the volume. A little while later he raised the volume again.
“Are you trying to increase the size of the captions?”
We had to pause the film because we were laughing so hard.

The second flaw is deeper and smacks of an interesting bias if not bigotry in itself.

Did you know I spent the majority of my professional life doing research?
I wanted to know if the silent prejudice I suspected truly existed.

I asked some two-hundred friends of color to send me a picture of a POC they found on the internet.

Every one of them sent me a picture of someone who was their color. This was revelatory to my inner sociologist. No African-American sent a picture of a Native American? No Latin-American sent me a picture of an Asian-American?


Okay, change the study. Only contact non-USA based POC.

(guess the outcome…go ahead, guess)

They all sent me images of POC who were not their color.

This left me wondering…

Who is a POC?
Evidently, it matters who’s asking and who’s answering.


What does my history as a researcher have to do with this?
Quite a lot because it directly concerns my attitude and contributes to my prejudice against using sensitivity readers as such.

I routinely published my research.

Shout-out to the typos that make it through three rounds of content edits, copyedits, and two rounds of proofreading. I am inspired by your dedication and tenacity – Jeff Anthony

But not without serious vetting first, meaning it usually went through three levels of review and even then I’d be hesitant because something might have slipped through the reviews – much like a tyop – with no one noticing.

To me, sensitivity reading isn’t sensitivity reading, it’s insuring your work is bulletproof.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, the brontosaurs, tyrannosaurs, stegosaurs, and I are going out to lunch at the Asteroid Grille.