Sensitivity Readers

July 25, 2016

Dear Writers and Editors,

I know that one strategy that is used to check the accuracy or authenticity of a manuscript with characters who are "other" to the writer is to have someone of that "other" group read the manuscript. In the language used in the industry, this means to get a "sensitivity reader" (note on 6/3/2021: this post was edited to use 'sensitivity' instead of 'beta' due to common usage of 'sensitivity') for the manuscript.

I've read several author notes in the last couple of years wherein the author states that they had sensitivity reader(s) from the Native communities featured in their books.

Writers: are you creating a Native character in your story? Editors: is your author including Native content? This blog post is for you. There are several things you should know about selecting sensitivity readers.

Research universities across the United States have guidelines specific to populations that have experienced abuse by researchers. These include children and minorities. These guidelines are also published by government agencies. Do a search and you'll find them. There are many things to consider. A key thing to consider is how the research will impact that person. May they be inadvertently hurt by participating? Are there things you'll do, that you did not realize, that could cause harm? These guidelines aren't just about medicines. They apply to educational researchers, too, who--for example--want to interview youth about their experiences.

You may not work for a university and therefore think you're exempt from those guidelines. When you're doing research within a Native community, however, there are tribal protocols that you must follow.

Native Nations across the United States also have guidelines in place to protect their members/citizens and the tribe's intellectual and cultural property (and yes, that includes traditional stories). Before you are pack your bag and head to a reservation, Native center, or museum, find the website of the specific nation you're planning to include in your story. Many have guidelines posted on their websites, or phone numbers of people you can speak to in advance of your trip.

Some universities have the protocols for nations near them at their site. Northern Arizona University, for example, has the protocols for the Hopi Nation on the university website.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and Montana State University's Center for Native Health Partnerships have a publication that is an excellent overview of working with Native Nations: Walk Softly and Listen Carefully. (Note: if the link doesn't work, write to me directly and I'll send you the pdf.)

Speaking to a tour guide at a museum is not enough. They are not the person with the authority to work with you. Obviously they're interested in education but there's an important distinction in what they do, and what a tribe's research board does.

Perhaps you are a current or former teacher of Native kids, teens, or adults. Your impulse may be to ask them to be a beta reader. In that relationship, there may be a huge power dynamic that you're unaware of. If they consent but then seem to be avoiding you or putting you off, I suggest you take that as a sign that they don't want to hurt your feelings or the relationship you have.

Most writers, editors, critics, and scholars (like me) have studied literary criticism, critical theory, social justice, racism, and the like. That may not be true for your beta readers. Be especially mindful of that difference. If, however, your teen/Native beta reader is involved in Native activism, the chances that you'll get good feedback are better.

In my second paragraph above, I noted authors that have used a Native person as a beta reader. Last year I did a very detailed analysis of an ARC of Sappenfield's The View From Who I Was. She thanked a beta reader in the ARC. My analysis circulated widely amongst Native networks, including amongst students and staff at the school Sappenfield visited for her research. In the published copy of Sappenfield's book, the name and identity of the beta reader are gone. I don't know why, but perhaps you (writers and editors) can find out from Sappenfield or her editor.

Years ago, I pointed to tribal protocols during a discussion on child_lit (a listserv). One response was a somewhat snarky "how are they going to enforce it"? It struck me, then, as dismissive of something vitally important to respectful ways of living. We can do better than that snarky response, right?

The point is--take care in selecting sensitivity readers for your manuscript.


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