When you write outside of your lived experience, a sensitivity reader is someone who helps make sure that your writing delivers accurate and authentic representation rather than perpetuating a stale, harmful, or even wrong stereotype.
The best presentation I've attended on this subject was given by the Newbery Award-Winning author Linda Sue Park. Park says that it's hard to accurately write a character from a different culture if you've never sat at their kitchen table. She used knitting to demonstrate her point.
Park has been a life-long knitter. She showed the audience an image of the proper way to hold knitting needles—ends down, tips up. Then she showed us images featuring illustrations of characters knitting but holding the needles the wrong way (ends up, tips down). Clearly, the illustrator of the inaccurate images isn't a knitter. In fact, they've probably never held knitting needles. It's not their lived experience.
💡This was a lightbulb moment for me. When Park gave this simplified example, I thought
of all the times I've seen purported yoga instructors (aka actors) on television holding a pose the wrong way. Knitting needles and yoga poses are minor mistakes, but Park's point demonstrates how easy it can be to get the details wrong. Sometimes, inaccurate details harm the suspension of disbelief, and sometimes they are culturally wrong and/or offensive errors.
In my upcoming 2024 novel, The Truth About 5th Grade (HarperCollins, summer 2024) co-written with Mark Parisi, I've written a scene where a supporting character celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month. I am not Latinx, so I hired sensitivity readers to take a look at my manuscript. I also leaned into my critique partners who are Latinx. The sensitivity readers and critique partners were able to share valuable insights on ideas and issues that I would have never thought of on my own (e.g., adding a cumbia playlist).
Here is a fantastic four-minute video (4:21) that explains why a sensitivity reader can be a great idea if you are writing outside of your lived experience.
If you have time for an 18-minute video, this TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “The Danger of a Single Story” is excellent!