“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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10 Reasons I Won’t Be Your Japanese Beta Reader

Hello reader of internets, it’s time for your bi-weekly-ish dose of JA attitude, courtesy yours truly. Today’s post is directed at non-Japanese folks writing about Japan/Japanese culture, but may also be useful if you’re a Japanese person who has been or is considering being a cultural beta reader.*

Generally speaking, if you’re a non-Japanese person writing about Japan/Japanese culture and you ask me to be your cultural beta reader, I will say no without a second thought.** Below are the top ten reasons why:

  • I am not your token cultural insider

o   I will not be the person you point to and say, “SHE approved it and SHE’S Japanese!” when your work is criticized for its cultural representations

o   Nor will I consider being the ONLY cultural beta reader on any project

  • I am not an expert in the area(s) you want feedback on

o   My knowledge of Japan/Japanese culture is a combination of my lived experience and research I have conducted for my own purposes – your work is unlikely to map onto these areas point for point – and even if it did, apart from being creeped out, I’d still tell you to get more than one cultural beta

o   I do not possess an advanced degree from the hallowed halls of colonial academia – if you care about these things

  • I am not a researcher-for-hire

o   This blog and the occasional tweet are about as much investment as I’m currently willing to make in your work

o   Do not use me to verify things you did not first try to verify on your own – I will ask for evidence of research. If I feel you tried insufficiently hard, I’ll tell you so – and I won’t offer any feedback until you do your part.

  • I am not your scapegoat

o   I will not be the person you blame to avoid your own accountability

o   If you are truly committed to writing about Japan/Japanese culture, you are also truly committed to accepting criticisms about your representations of Japan/Japanese culture. If you disagree with the second thing, might I suggest finding something else to write about?

  • I am not your faceless POC robot

o   I will not be the person you enlisted so you or your publisher could tick a box

o   If I agree to be a cultural beta reader for you, it is a two-way road. I will expect to be able to get to know you and I will expect you to do the same for me. And I will reserve the right to terminate the agreement at any point if I feel you are not honestly representing yourself or your intentions with regard to my culture.

  • We have differing ideas about the parameters of the writer/beta relationship

o   In other words, you won’t be getting any extra labor out of me for free. Chances are, you won’t be getting any extra labor out of me for any price. See the bullet point about not being a researcher-for-hire.

  • Your reasons for writing about Japan/Japanese culture don’t hold up

o   Anime/manga fan with little to no idea of what Japan is like outside of these mediums? Tend to use “-senpai” and “kawaii” in your otherwise all-English daily vocabulary? Yeah no.

o   You “feel” you are Japanese – when you aren’t. Yeah no.

o   You “admire” Japanese culture. Do you admire white culture? Yeah no.

o   You want to write “diversely” – take a look at the “diversity” you are representing in your work. For example, if you are writing from a JA perspective – are you JA? How much time have you spent in JA communities? What can you tell me about JA cultures and communities without looking at any external sources? Now tell me about the external sources you did consult. In detail.

o   And the all-important question: what exactly is this story that only you can tell?

  • You fucked it up too badly for me to even want to read your work

o   I will not commit to being your cultural beta until AFTER reading sample pages. And by sample pages, I mean you will send me your entire manuscript and I will randomly read selections – so don’t think you can get away with polishing chapter one and keeping the racist garbage in chapters two through whatever.

  • Your social media accounts/other public persona indicate you are a racist asshole

o   No, following me on Twitter will not endear you to me, especially if I go to your feed and it is full of white people whitesplaining life.

  • You are not worth my time/emotional investment/mental health

o   This reason is probably at the core of the other reasons listed in this post – to be a beta reader is ultimately to be in a position of greater knowledge but lesser power.

o   In other words, even if I’m right and you’re wrong, you’re the one who decides what goes on the page. At the end of the day, YOU are still the one with the power to hurt ME.

o   Other people have said in other places on the internet that it takes WORK to be a beta, especially when you are beta-ing because you have an inside perspective on something. This is entirely true.

o   So then, to see subjects that form the core of your being and the foundation of your identity, carelessly thrown at the page like a drunken dart game is – well, how do you think it feels?

o   Here’s where history sucker-punches you. In my personal reading experience, non-Japanese authors have an atrocious track record when it comes to depicting Japan/Japanese culture. The racism I have encountered is partly perpetuated by depictions like these. So, sorry-not-sorry, but I’m not going to be your Japanese beta reader today.

You may have noticed I used “you” a lot in the above list, rather than “your work.” This is because I believe writers need to be held thoroughly accountable for their representations of marginalized peoples and topics, especially when writing from outside those experiences. That book did not just wink into being. A human wrote those words, another human repped them, another human edited them. I don’t believe in pulling punches or sugarcoating. If you did wrong, you did wrong, and I am going to tell you so. You, not your book. And I will expect you to do better next time, if you choose to write again.

This post is just one JA’s opinion. It by no means applies to all Japanese people or even all JAs. WE ARE NOT A MONOLITH. But do remember, no matter what your stance on cultural betas, YOU as the writer will ultimately be held accountable for any and all cultural (mis)representations in your work. (In other words, regardless of whether I or other Japanese people were your cultural betas, I’ll still call you out if you screw up.)

Thanks for reading! Check out the Resources page for thoughts in a similar vein!

*If you’re a Japanese person writing about Japan/Japanese culture and you want a beta reader, talk to me! (Yes, it’s totally a thing to have beta readers from your own culture because none of us know EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME EVER ABOUT JAPAN. I have trusty Japanese betas inside and outside Japan. That said, depending on the scope of your work, I think it’s probably possible to be a Japanese person writing about Japan and not consult cultural betas, though I imagine you’ll still have to do some degree of research. For example, Murakami Haruki’s novels strike me as the type of work he wouldn’t necessarily need cultural betas for, but I would be surprised if he also did zero research. I did hear – but haven’t confirmed – he was criticized for stereotyping the residents of a certain Japanese village, so, if true, just goes to show you don’t – and shouldn’t – get a free pass regardless of your background/status.)

**Possible exceptions: if I know you personally AND I don’t think you’ll make a total hash of it; if you’re a nonwhite writer WITH a social media history/other public persona indicating you are not a racist asshole; if you’re a white writer…sorry, find someone else.