“One of these things is not like the Other,” or the problem with choosing ‘sensitivity’ readers

I’d like to start off by saying I am excessively proud of the bad pun in the title of this post. I came up with it in the shower and was about to discard it when I realized, why do that when I could INFLICT IT ON THE WORLD instead? So, there it is.

I’ve talked in various places on this blog about how Japanese, Asians, and nonwhite people are not monolithic. Today, I’m thinking aloud (in writing?) about why it is especially important to know this when writing as an outsider.*

In course of drafting and revising my own works-in-progress, I’ve had a number of conversations with fellow Japanese re: representation. One of the most common topics in these conversations is specificity – specifically (see what I did there?), the importance of knowing what your readers can and can’t contribute to your work, versus what you (the writer) want or need readers to contribute. For example, my dad is Japanese, born and raised in the US. He has not lived in Japan for an extended time, nor does he speak Japanese. One of my MCs has a dad. He is Japanese, born and raised in Japan, speaks Japanese, etc. That being said, can my dad vet my representation of my MC’s dad?

Well, yes and no. Yes – they are both dads, they are both Japanese, they both have daughters. No – my dad’s life experiences are mostly contextualized by diaspora Japanese/dominant “American” cultures, while my MC’s dad’s life experiences are mostly contextualized by Japanese culture. In short, my dad has not experienced being a dad in Japan, just as my MC’s dad’s experience is not reflective of being a dad in diaspora Japanese/dominant “American” culture. This doesn’t mean my dad has nothing to contribute to this discussion – I can still ask him for his opinion of my MC’s dad – it just means, I will also need to solicit opinions from Japanese who have experienced being a dad in Japan. My end goal – for my MC’s dad to be a character reflective of Japanese fatherhood in Japan – thus requires vetting from a specific group of Japanese.

I bring this up because I’ve seen a lot of online discussions re: “sensitivity” readers lately. It seems more folks are catching on to the idea their sensitivity reader(s) cannot and should not be expected to be a foolproof method against critiques of representation. I’d like to pull back a level by asking, are writers considering “best fit” when approaching potential sensitivity readers? It’s great to acknowledge your sensitivity readers are human, to be sure, but it’s even better if you choose wisely in the first place and avoid wasting your own and your reader’s time when it turns out they aren’t the best fit for your project.

Confused? Let me rephrase: do you see your sensitivity reader(s) as human first, or as [insert culture/race/ethnicity] first? Just because someone self-identifies as [insert culture/race/ethnicity] does not mean they want to or need to vet your representation of that culture/race/ethnicity. Just because someone self-identifies as [insert culture/race/ethnicity] does not mean they are the best fit TO vet your representation of that culture/race/ethnicity, even if they agree to do so. Maybe they are being nice. Maybe they think they know more than they do. Maybe they fear being called out for lack of “authenticity” if they say no. There are many reasons why someone might feel pressured into being a sensitivity reader for you. As a writer, it’s YOUR job to be as clear as possible about what you need from a sensitivity read – and to be RESPECTFUL of where your potential sensitivity readers are coming from if they express discomfort with reading your work.

But wait, why am I writing about my experiences as an #ownvoices writer in a blog post ostensibly about people writing as outsiders? Well, precisely that – based on outsider representations of Japan I’ve seen, there are levels of nuance of Japanese culture and experience which seem to be simplified and/or overlooked by non-Japanese. I don’t think this is necessarily something outsiders can help – you can’t be expected to know everything about something you have never personally experienced – but at the same time, this fact does not justify misrepresentation.

Every person is unique.

The above statement doesn’t magically vanish because of someone’s racial/ethnic/cultural background. Writers who view their sensitivity readers as representatives of [insert culture/race/ethnicity] first and everything else second are missing the point of having these readers to begin with. From what I’ve seen, writers who are writing outside their lanes are more susceptible to this fallacy than #ownvoices writers.** Writers who play musical chairs with their sensitivity readers – as long as the checkbox for “sensitivity reader” is ticked off, who cares who filled it, right? – have already failed at respectful representation. They are utilizing their readers to validate their insecurities about their work, while completely ignoring and oversimplifying the varied experiences their readers have to offer. In short, they are seeking absolution for their perception of [insert culture/race/ethnicity] as Other, rather than recognizing and attempting to unlearn their privileged perspectives. This is the writer’s version of, “well, this person from [insert culture/race/ethnicity] said [insert racist thing] was OK, so I’m going to ignore everyone else from [insert same culture/race/ethnicity]!”

I chose to share a personal example above because it illuminates one instance of the wide spectrum of Japanese experiences. I am Japanese and I write Japanese stories. But I don’t use my “Japaneseness” or the “Japaneseness” of other Japanese I know as an automatic catch-all for any errors I may make. To ask a Japanese person to vet your representations of Japanese culture purely because they are Japanese is to unfairly and unrealistically expect them to represent your idea of Japanese culture. This is not the same as saying they will have nothing to contribute to your work. If a Japanese person agrees to vet your representations of Japanese culture, they will of course have some insights – but whether those insights match up with gaps/errors on your part is not their responsibility.

As the “diverse” writing scene shifts toward increased emphasis on respectful representations and how to achieve them, I hope writers – particularly outsiders – are thinking deeply about WHY they need sensitivity readers. Simply having a sensitivity reader to tick off a box is insufficient and disrespectful to the reader and the race/ethnicity/culture being represented, not to mention any insiders who may invest in the finished product. If writers are truly committed to respecting their sources, they will recognize the human experiences underpinning their work and actively seek out voices who can speak to these experiences, not merely those who are tangentially related by dint of a label imposed on them by systemic Othering.

Thanks for reading! Other people have discussed sensitivity readers in other places on the internet – please check out the Resources page for their perspectives.

If you already knew all of this because you’re a fellow #ownvoices writer – yay! I’m glad you’re here and I appreciate you taking the time to read my blog. I’ve probably read your blog, too, and/or followed you on Twitter – but if I haven’t, please let me know so I can!

On a final note, I’m not completely satisfied with this post – some of my thoughts on the topic are still developing, so I’ll probably revisit it in the future.

*If you’ve followed my scattered references to my own work, you already know I write #ownvoices stories. I’m writing this post as a member of a culture that gets frequently (and badly) depicted by outsiders. It’s not intended as a lesson – as I’ve said before, I’m not in the business of encouraging outsiders to write Japanese culture to begin with – instead, it’s the latest part of the ongoing conversation I’ve been having with myself and with other #ownvoices writers about representation. If you’re writing outside your lane and you’re reading this, well, I can’t stop you, but know it isn’t for you. There are plenty of places online where you can talk to people about writing outside your lane; this isn’t one of them.

**No, #ownvoices representations are not “perfect” – because even within a race/ethnicity/culture, there will always be differing opinions about how things are and should be. However, I trust #ownvoices writers to be more conscious of these differences and to find ways to acknowledge these differences in their work – much more so than I would trust outsiders to do the same. This goes for both “realistic” and SFF representations – I think outsiders too often fall into complacency by writing off their errors/lack of research/privileged perspectives as, “it’s just science fiction/fantasy/fiction.” Easy for them to say – because at most, they will only ever experience the consequences of their poor representation in the form of a one-star book review. They will never endure the lived experiences that result from such poor representation – slurs, whitewashing, fetishizing, assimilation, etc. When a white person alters a Japanese myth in the name of “fiction,” they perpetuate the westernizing, colonizing, white-supremacist framework that sanctions/creates/encourages/consumes such representations in the first place. When a white person alters a Japanese myth in the name of “fiction,” they are saying the importance of elevating their (white) voice to tell this story is worth the real-life repercussions it will have for Japanese people whose experiences within the western, colonial, white-supremacist culture are shaped by representations like these. This is why, “it’s just science fiction/fantasy/fiction” does not justify misrepresentation. “Fiction” does not exist in a vacuum, no matter how much the (white) writer might wish it. There is a different power dynamic at play when a white writer alters a Japanese myth versus when a Japanese writer alters that same myth. The white writer is much more likely to reveal cultural ignorance in the choices they make about what/how to alter the myth than the Japanese writer because the white writer lacks the cultural perspectives informing the original myth. And yet, white writers continue writing Japan, choosing to ignore or insufficiently interrogate their own privileges in the process. For this reason, I will always support #ownvoices writing Japan over white voices writing Japan.

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