The thing about sensitivity editing, and looking for content that might be inaccurate or offensive, is that no particular group is a monolith. This is the thought that entered my head when I was asked to be a sensitivity editor for any Indigenous content that appeared in the forthcoming anthology, Nothing Without Us.
There are 634 First Nations in Canada, or at least there were as of the 2011 census. This does not include the Inuit or Métis nations. Moreover, it does not include any of the native tribes of the United States. Of all those, I am familiar with only my own nation, the Ojibwe of Wausauksing First Nation. Even then, I am not officially a member, as physical ties to the community were through my father, who was not present in my life. Because of this, it is only in the last twenty years I have really made the effort to get to know my culture, and it still sounds wrong to refer to it as “mine.”
So, at first, I questioned myself as to whether I could be an appropriate sensitivity editor for Indigenous content. Editing for disability content—now that was in my wheelhouse. I have lived my whole life in a body that is home to cerebral palsy, and I know how it feels to be disabled in a way that literally permeates my very bones and muscles. The irony was, Nothing Without Us is an anthology written by people with disabilities about people with disabilities. They most certainly did not need my assistance in that regard. Even if they had, I could not purport to be familiar with the everyday lives of all disabled people. Of course I couldn’t.
So why did I feel as though I was not Indigenous enough to do the job? It was then that one of the premises behind Nothing Without Us came to mind. Oftentimes people feel as though they are not “disabled enough” to be a part of the disabled community. I had never felt that way about my disability, but I was feeling it about my heritage.
I realized if the feelings were similar, then so was the response. I identify as an Indigenous woman, therefore I was most certainly Indigenous enough to do the job. And so I did.
Sensitivity editing is not just about finding the clear negativity in a text, however. It is also about that strange phenomenon those of us on the margins often encounter from the mainstream—the idea that somehow we are magical, special, or otherwise inspiring. It is possible to be overly positive about a group of people and doing so often strips those very people of their humanity, leaving the reader to feel as if we are too perfect. And nobody wants to be the Mary Sue of the world. Indigenous Peoples are not all shamans or medicine women, hell, we’re not even all wise, at the individual level.
More frequently, however, Indigenous stories written by non-Indigenous voices are home to negative stereotypes. How many times have I read a story that included the good old “drunken Indian” trope? Far too many to count.
That is not to say that no writer can ever depict the problems that plague our communities. But it must be done with sensitivity. It must be done with an understanding of the colonialist trauma that still impacts us, which, dare I say it, is embedded in our blood.
It’s easy to dismiss sensitivity editing as something unnecessary, and that we’re all too easily triggered, too sensitive these days. But it’s no longer enough simply to have characters in media who represent us. Diversity is nothing without inclusion, representation is nothing without an accurate voice.
Despite her day job as a bureaucrat, April Laramey is a writer who dabbles in photography, spends too much time on the internet, paints, and occasionally gets some exercise. Her favourite colour is green, she wants to work in a bookstore when she grows up, and when she dies she wants her tombstone to read “To Be Continued…”
April is also a sensitivity editor for Indigenous content. She recently edited stories in the upcoming Nothing Without Us anthology. You can read more about her at alaramey.com or on facebook or twitter.