author – activist – faculty – mom
When I was writing my novel Uptown Thief in 2011, I got a sex worker activist to read it. I was writing about sex workers and their fight for justice. I wanted to get my portrayals right, so I had an activist from that community read the book. I got a ton of notes and had to retool my entire plot.
At the time, I wasn’t familiar with the term “sensitivity reader.” I simply had both paid and unpaid readers from groups I was writing about who gave me feedback.
Uptown Thief came out in 2016, and was followed by The Boss in 2017. When sex workers read, review, or comment on my work, most of the feedback affirms that my portrayals ring true. You know what I call that? Integrity. Respect. A job well-done. A work ethic.
And I didn’t just vet the sex worker details. I vetted the cultural details, as well. I’m a Black/Puerto Rican/West Indian woman. But I got consultants from these constituencies that I am part of to vet cultural details of my book. Because I’m Puerto Rican, but not from New York. I’m African American but not from Chicago. I’m West Indian, but not with roots in Trinidad (the third book in my Justice Hustlers series The Accidental Mistress has Trinidadian co-protagonists).
Recently, there has been a flurry of articles questioning whether the use of “sensitivity readers,” a longstanding and widespread practice in children’s and YA literature is censorship. But many critics of this whole framing have pointed out that sensitivity reading is really just good editing. In the literary industry, most of the editing is done by white people, who actually have the power to demand changes or to tank the book if the writer refuses. And they certainly have the power not to acquire or publish the writer’s next book.
These cries of censorship have arisen because, in the age of social media, people of color and other marginalized communities finally have a public forum in which to call out the dehumanizing portrayals of our communities that have gone unchallenged for centuries. In Toni Morrison’s 1992 work, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, she calls out the critical and distorted role racism has played in our Western canon.
I think this notion of imagination is critical. Sensitivity readers challenge a key tenet of racism (or sexism or many other isms) because white supremacy has always demanded that reality shape itself around its distorted visions of people of color (or women) that exist in the racist (or sexist) imagination. The white male imagination has been running this country for hundreds of years, and its distortions have been enshrined in our constitution, our history and our culture.
The unarmed teenager must be shot dead because the cop imagined himself in danger.
The woman’s tight skirt told me she was asking to have sex, so her screams of protest didn’t count.
The Mexicans who are coming to the US are all rapists.
I can’t imagine you as my peer in this workplace, but rather as a sex toy for my pleasure. So here comes my hand grabbing your pussy.
Anyone who appears Middle Eastern, Arab, or Muslim is a terrorist.
Not only does the racist and sexist imagination guide our literature, it has guided our public policy.
Racism is about my right to imagine you.
I imagine you a criminal from birth, and I build prisons to hold you instead of universities or even jobs. I build a whole economy around prison labor. I enact drug laws that will get you on board for the least infraction. I over police your community. I enact parole and gang laws that will lock you up for merely associating with members of your own family. I ensure your role as a worker in the world I have built for you in my mind.
The sexist imagination has been guiding our policy toward women with equally disastrous results.
I imagine you as a mother, so I legislate that you must become one. I imagine you in a 1950s kitchen, sun beaming through your middle-class window, kissing your husband on his way to work. I don’t care that you have no interest in mothering, no financial resources to do it well, are struggling with the trauma of your own childhood. I don’t care that becoming a mother is the greatest pathway to poverty in the US. I refuse to see your pregnancy by rape or incest. I imagine that is not possible. I imagine you a mother, so no abortion for you. No birth control. No state support to make it go well. I imagine you walking your kids to a suburban school still in your apron from making a nutritious breakfast. I refuse to see your homeless shelter, your intergenerational trauma, your lack of interest in the project. Children don’t need to be wanted, they only need me to imagine they are. I will legislate it so.
We are in a period of intense backlash to the histories of White Supremacy and male domination. People of color and women are finally pushing back on centuries of subjugation. The 2016 election and the current shitshow of national public policy are a last gasp effort to turn back time. Make America great again: return the unquestioned dominance of men and white people. Racism and sexism haven’t ended, but women and people of color refuse to shut up about it.
In literature, sensitivity readers challenge the biggest prerogative of white supremacy and misogyny: the entitlement to imagine what the “other” thinks and feels, and to be free of any obligation to check that perception.
But can the subaltern speak? Can she tell you your plot and characterization of her, her culture or her people are complete bullshit? I am sick of the white supremacist, misogynist imagination shaping reality, and second to that, I’m sick of it shaping media and literature. Which in turn help shape culture and reality.
It is unfathomable to me that in the era of Tr*mp, with tax scam bills passing and Muslim bans being upheld and the Dream Act being shot down, that people of color online expressing racism are being framed as the bullies of white people in the literary establishment. Just like men are getting worried about “witch hunts” in Hollywood. These protests are the sound of people losing a privilege they have been told would be theirs for life, unquestioned, enshrined. Nope. Jenn Baker, Justina Ireland, Dhonielle Clayton, Nic Stone, are just a few of the voices that are pushing back against the prerogative to misrepresent. Corinne Duyvis has even gone so far as to suggest the revolutionary notion via #ownvoices that people from our marginalized communities are best positioned to represent ourselves.
In the New York Review of Books, Francine Prose dismisses the power of people’s lived experience. This is mind-blowing to me, implying as it does that the white imagination of people of color is more valid than our own testimony about our own lives. This is right in line with white supremacy that dictates that everything about white people is more valuable and valid than anything about POC: our thoughts, our words, our bodies, our votes, our lives. Prose says that sensitivity readers may reflect a lack of “faith in the power of the imagination.” The truth is that we, as marginalized people, are survivors of the violence of imagination. Humans imagined chattel slavery, Indigenous genocide, the Jewish holocaust, mass rape in war, the atomic bomb. Stop acting like the imagination is inherently benign. The imagination, when armed with racism or sexism or any other dehumanizing distortion, is anything but.
Prose brings up the issue of censorship. But people in a position of dominance often cry “censorship” any time those they’ve been dominating express criticism. To truly dominate someone is not only to subjugate them, but to get them to agree that the subjugation is right, true, and justified. POC or women get charged with censorship when we express our opinions:
“I’m not listening.”
“I don’t like this.”
“You’re lying about how we are.”
“Your presumption to be expert about us is a sham.”
“Your portrayals that glorify our subjugation aren’t brilliant art, they’re part of the real life legacy of violence against me and my people.”
The dominant ones want to dominate and also keep that domination invisible. The myth is that it’s not a system that has always privileged the white gaze, it’s merit. It’s not racism, it’s just imagination. Well we’re here to say that your imagination is racist. Which is not censorship, it’s actually our community having a platform to actually use our right to free speech in the literary industry for the first time in history. You are free to keep writing this stuff. And your fans are free to keep buying it. And your publishers are free to keep publishing it. But you don’t get to do so without criticism and to create an illusion of consensus about the quality of your literary production.
Actual censorship is to keep something from being written, published, or read. Our criticisms of racist texts don’t keep them from being published. The white gatekeepers of the literary industry are the ones who make the decisions. Any gatekeeper who says “we decided not to publish the book because we got criticism” is spineless. But many people in the industry do have integrity, and say “we decided not to publish the book because, when people pointed out the bias in our blind spot, we agreed, and we don’t actually want to be racist but we screwed up and did it by mistake.” And the industry is getting sensitivity readers because in capitalism, where money is the bottom line, it’s a helluva lot cheaper to pay someone $250 and up to vet your book, than to cancel a release after the book has been printed.
And yes, sometimes you get a sensitivity reader who doesn’t pick up on something important that others in that community will find offensive. And you find yourself in a big mess. But here’s the missing piece: white authors often specifically decide to write about hot button issues that involve race, because they think that the controversy will be clickbait, to generate buzz for their book to boost their career and line their wallet. And the white literary professionals agree. So they want to make it sexy by setting the book in the midst of the current brutality toward people of color, but get upset when those whose communities are actually under attack have a big emotional response.
Which is why I did so much vetting and research and bent over backwards to educate myself about the sex work community and explore my ties to the community and my motives for writing the book. Because I knew that part of the book’s hook was the sex work angle. People are fascinated by sex work and sex workers. So if I was going to write about this marginalized community that I’m not part of, I was going to make sure that my book not only resonated with the truth of the community, but was also aligned with the liberation goals of the community. Because to do otherwise would be pimping. Sex workers generally like my work because they can tell that I didn’t just write about them, I wrote in solidarity with them.
And I think #ownvoices goes even further with that issue of exploitation. I have been on panels at writing conferences with white authors who are bold enough to say, “I’m here because I’ve heard that diversity sells, so I want to write diverse characters.” Not even understanding what’s wrong with that picture. This is exploitation. Some of these white writers want to depict our community struggles and histories to make their work more competitive in the new more diverse marketplace. They want to add emotional depth and intensity by appropriating our pain and subjugation, without any commitment to our liberation. And even less commitment to supporting writers from the communities they want to write about.
To be privileged in a society is to have no idea what it would be like to move through the world experiencing a certain kind of targeting. The imagination of the privileged is highly overrated. Not to mention distorted. Stop inflating the scope of your insight into the human condition. Yes, for some of you older white writers, you have gotten away with these lazy practices for years. It is unfathomable to me to be so entitled and narcissistic that I wouldn’t even want to hear feedback from those with the lived experience I was writing about. I wasn’t afraid sex workers would tank my book with criticism. I was afraid I would betray a community of people who have enough goddamn problems. I was afraid I would contribute to the endless shitty portrayals of a group of women. It’s so classic that privileged white writers are more concerned with losing a shred of power than actually treating communities with respect and integrity. Do your homework. Know your blind spots. Hire sensitivity readers and pay them. Or at least read the literature of the communities you don’t belong to but want to write about.
Or don’t. You can also just run your racist or misogynist bullshit. But don’t expect those of us who live the real lives you’re imagining to applaud you, buy your books, or refrain from calling you out. Folks are pissed. We’re sick of the racist, misogynist gaze being constructed as objective truth or literary genius or the president. But go ahead. Roll with that same old tired shit. We dare you. How bad can we come for you? Use your imagination.