In an effort to avoid harmful stereotypes of marginalized people, several Christian fiction publishers are taking steps to uncover bias and ensure authenticity in books. One such measure—the use of sensitivity readers—is on the rise. Sensitivity readers are editors who review content that depicts minorities in order to flag problematic language, cultural inaccuracies, and more.
The issue of harmful representations of BIPOC people and culture in Christian fiction came to the forefront in August after the Romance Writers of America (RWA) rescinded its Vivian Award for Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements from Karen Witemeyer, author of At Love’s Command (Bethany, 2020). The award was withdrawn over the book’s plot, which RWA said glorified the Wounded Knee massacre, in which hundreds of Native Americans, including women and children, were killed. The story follows Matt Hanger, an army captain who fought in the Battle of Wounded Knee and killed several Lakota members. He later atones for those sins and finds redemption in God.
In response to RWA’s decision to rescind the award, Bethany said in a statement that it is listening to conversations “about whether content related to atrocities, even if historically accurate, is appropriate or helpful.”
Speaking to PW as a group, Bethany’s fiction staff says that sensitivity readers are valued, and that more and more authors are initiating the process themselves. “Part of the ongoing conversation around sensitivity involves critically evaluating what stories are being told and who’s telling them,” the team says. “We would especially like to ask thoughtful questions along these lines earlier in the process—at publication board or when discussing next book ideas with an author—rather than when evaluating a manuscript that’s already been turned in.”
The editorial team is attending more in-person and virtual events, including those specific to BIPOC authors, such as Publishing in Color and Romance Slam Jam, while also seeking more manuscripts from BIPOC authors.
Tyndale Fiction is also looking more closely at how people of color are depicted in their books. “We have sought sensitivity readers as a resource and will continue to do so, though we don’t see that as an end-all, be-all solution,” says Stephanie Broene, senior acquisitions editor. “Our biggest efforts so far have centered around trying to educate our acquisitions and editorial staff by listening to as many conversations as possible taking place about race and diversity.”
Broene points out essential questions to ask as a company: “Where are our blind spots? What have we done well? What have we not done well? How do we need to adjust on both macro levels, in what we choose to acquire, for instance, and micro levels—the language we use, our implicit biases, etcetera?”
Consequently, Tyndale’s business decisions are not based on a clear-cut guide, according to Broene. “It’s more nuanced than a list of ‘don’ts,’ though there are some words or stereotypes that would more quickly get flagged for discussion,” she says. “But the more subtle things are just as important to discuss. It’s back to the importance of listening, reading, educating ourselves on the current conversations about race and inclusion, and sharing [those findings] with each other.”
Associate publisher for Iron Stream Media Suzanne Kuhn says she wants to be “ahead of the curve” on issues related to responsible representation of diverse people in books. The publisher has used sensitivity readers and hired one, Edwina Perkins, as an acquisitions editor. “Does that guarantee we’ll catch everything,” Kuhn posits. “Probably not, but it shows we are doing our best.”
Perkins, who had three years of experience as a sensitivity reader before she joined Iron Steam’s Harambee Press fiction imprint, notes some of the problematic plots she has read over the course of her career: stories in which a Black character is killed first, cast as the criminal, or ascribed no signs of intelligence. Perkins also points out tendency of writers to describe skin color by drawing comparisons to foods, such as coffee or caramel.
Today, Perkins is both an acquisitions editor at Iron Stream and manager of Sensitivity Between the Lines (BTL), which connects sensitivity readers with authors who are writing about a culture, background, identity, or experience that is different from their own. The program was launched at the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference in May, and it now includes 10 sensitivity readers.
“Publishers are starting to open their eyes to the need for sensitivity readers,” Perkins says. Yet, she puts the onus on authors to be well informed. “It really should start with the author. If the author uses a sensitivity reader, a lot of the issues that flow into the publishing house would be stopped.”
It is essential, Perkins says, for authors to look beyond their own realm of experience while writing: “Don’t be afraid to write about other communities, but do your homework,” she says. “More than ever, authors are asking questions and wanting to make sure they’re doing it correctly.”
The conversations surrounding responsible representation are ongoing industry-wide, though Perkins says change is "a slow process."
She adds: “I’m hoping publishing houses will take a hard stand on these issues, though some people aren’t going to be happy. We can’t wait to make everybody happy to start doing this work.”