If you’ve been reading my novel Commonwealth, you’ve seen that the protagonist, Rae Robinson, is a biracial woman. (This intentionally isn’t stated until several chapters in, in a line of dialogue where it comes up naturally, because I hate that cliche where the character sees themself in a mirror.)
This was a choice I made when I started writing the novel in 2018, and it wasn’t just for the sake of wokeness. Commonwealth is a story of people struggling under the burden of inequality and a system designed to keep them poor and disenfranchised. It would miss the mark if it didn’t feature non-white people who have, historically, borne the brunt of such discrimination. If I told it as a story of white people suffering those injustices, pretending that nothing like this had ever happened before, I feel that would be more appropriative.
Still, I’m aware that for a white person like me to write a novel with a person of color as the protagonist is a high-wire act. Writers have a heavier duty of care to get it right when creating characters who are different from us. That goes double when your character is a member of a minority or marginalized group that you aren’t part of, since a prejudiced, sloppy or thoughtless portrayal can perpetuate the attitudes that inflict real harm.
In writing Commonwealth, I’ve relied on resources like Writing With Color, which give helpful tips and list common mistakes to avoid, but they can only take you so far. The gold standard is to hire a professional sensitivity reader.
Happily, I found the perfect person, whose resume combined professional expertise with a background very similar to the one I had imagined for my heroine. Her name is Trinica Sampson. Here’s her bio:
Trinica Sampson has had a passion for seeking out, crafting, and sharing engaging narratives since she was young. As an editor, she strives to help authors develop fully nuanced stories that captivate, inform, and entertain in a respectful manner. As a queer woman of color, she has particular experience and interest in reading own voices stories. Trinica has a degree in Literature and Creative Writing from Antioch College and experience working as an editorial assistant with Utne Reader, The Antioch Review, and Salt and Sage Books.
Trinica agreed to review my manuscript, and I don’t mind admitting, I was anxious waiting to hear from her! If she’d found fatal flaws, I couldn’t have gone ahead with the book in good conscience. It could have meant months of writing down the drain.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen. But she did offer some thoughtful comments that allowed me to fix some potentially problematic lines and, I hope, deepen and enrich my portrayal of Rae with true-to-life details.
I asked Trinica if she’d like to be interviewed about her editing business and what a sensitivity reader does for an author, and she agreed. Here’s our conversation:
In your words, what does a sensitivity reader do? If you’d like to address this as well, what does a sensitivity reader not do?
A sensitivity writer provides advice and guidance on scenes, plot points, historical context, dialogue, description, word choice, world-building, and character development. The primary purpose is to assist writers who are not part of a marginalized group who are writing characters of that group. A sensitivity reader provides context from personal, lived experience to authors so that their work provides accurate, nuanced representation. Sensitivity readers can help writers avoid certain pitfalls like tokenism or racist stereotypes. A sensitivity reader cannot guarantee that a work is free of all potentially harmful content, as sensitivity readers are not a monolith of culture. This is also why it’s important to hire a reader whose identities intersect with your characters’ identities or hire multiple sensitivity readers. Also, multiple sensitivity readers from the same identity may offer different perspectives, which can give depth to your writing.
Why is this a service that white authors should consider paying for? After all, we’re all alike on the inside, so can’t I just imagine what it would be like to be a person of a different gender or from a different culture? (obviously, sarcasm)
I do think it’s possible for a white author to write outside of their identity without causing harm, and I always encourage authors to do their own research before they start writing (as they should with any aspect of their writing with which they are unfamiliar). However, the goal in hiring a sensitivity reader is the same as the goal with hiring any editor – authenticity, depth, living characters that jump off the page. One (misguided) argument I’ve heard is that writers should write their characters of color/disabled characters/queer characters/etc. the same way they would write any other character. However, a person’s identities affect how they move through the world, how they perceive others, how others perceive them, how they react to things. A sensitivity reader can help point out aspects of a person’s life that may be affected by their identity.
In your professional experience, what are some of the most common pitfalls that white authors stumble into?
There are so many potential pitfalls! I’ll name just a few: characters who are archetypes (Uncle Tom, Mammy, Jezebel, Angry Black Woman, Black Buck, the Savage, the Tragic Mulatto, the Black Best Friend, the Magical Negro, etc); using food color to describe a character of color’s skin; misusing AAVE or misunderstanding code-switching; not understanding how black hair works; playing into the absent black father and single black mother stereotype; colorism/anti-blackness (i.e. making all your characters of color biracial or your love interest biracial because it’s diverse without being too black); and using African-American as a catch-all. Just to name a few!
I find that inclusiveness poses a dilemma for writers who are white men. On one hand, it’s beneficial for everyone to challenge the assumption that white male characters are the “neutral” or the “default” choice. It’s a positive good to have more representation in fiction and more characters (especially more main characters!) who are women and people of color.
At the same time, it’s important to make room for authors from diverse backgrounds to tell their own stories. I don’t want to claim ownership of experiences that don’t belong to me or to use a character who’s a minority as a mouthpiece for my own opinions. Do you have any thoughts on how white authors can thread this needle?
There is a lot of discourse out right now about whether white authors should pen main characters who are POC. I’m not positive where I stand. I’m sure I’ve read books penned by white authors with a main character who is POC and felt they did a decent job. I’ve also definitely read books that did a terrible job. If a white writer is wanting to write a main character who is a POC, I think it’s important that they ask themselves why. Is it to fill a quota? Does it make you feel like you’re doing your part to have a more diverse cast of characters? Have you done your research? Will you do your research? Will you hire sensitivity readers? All of these things are important to understand about oneself. Personally, I love seeing more diverse casts, but what I would love most of all is authors of color getting the opportunities they deserve. If it came down to a white author getting a deal writing a POC main character or an author of color… well, in the words of Issa Rae, I’m rooting for everybody black.
I’ve used Writing With Color as a helpful guide for some points of Commonwealth. Are there other books or web resources you’d recommend for writers who want to get this right?
There are so many resources out there these days! I do love Writing With Color. I would also suggest doing some anti-racist reading (and there are enough compiled lists that I won’t list a ton of titles here, but Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison is great), using https://www.naturallycurly.com/hair-types to understand hair types, and checking out the Incomplete Guide to Writing Characters of Color coming out soon from Salt and Sage Books. Also, listen. Listen to POC voices. Diversify your social media feeds. You don’t know what you don’t know, so seek out voices that are different from you and listen.
You can follow Trinica on Twitter at @QTPOCreads.