‘Sensitivity readers’ masking bigger problem in publishing

Tinashe Mushakavanhu
2 min readFeb 20, 2017
Censored section of Green Illusions by Ozzie Zehner Photo: Mutant669/Creative Commons

Political correctness is the new norm and book publishers are taking care not to offend. Recent political events — the Brexit vote in Britain and the elevation of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States of America — have forced a new development in book publishing.

It has always been that before a book is published and released to the public, it passes through the hands of many people. As an additional check, publishers have been encouraging writers to employ sensitivity readers to flag up racist, sexist or offensive content in their books.

Sensitivity readers have emerged, however, in a climate — fuelled in part by social media — in which writers are under increased scrutiny for their portrayals of people from marginalised groups, especially when the author is not a part of that group.

These readers, who are ‘often experts in their fields,’ check for any misrepresentations, stereotypes, inauthentic dialogue or anything else that might conceivably offend readers who identify with the marginalised groups represented in a book.

But sensitivity readers mask a bigger publishing problem. White writers and readers, especially remain privileged. There is fear that sensitivity readers actually legitimise the mimicking of marginalised voices by non-marginalised writers and not necessarily help a writer create the experience of a marginalised group more authentically.

Why is the book publishing world simply not embracing more people from fringe cultures and minority groups to write and publish their own experiences? Does this new band-aid solution really work?