In the world of publishing, the sensitive issue of “sensitivity readers”

Girls like us the first novel by the American of Filipino origin Daphne Palasi Andreades, 30, has just been published on January 12 in France. Brown Girls (its original title) retraces the trajectory of a cohort of girls and women from Queens, a popular district of New York. American women of immigrant origin trying to find their place.

A few months before publication, the editorial director of Les Escales, Sarah Rigaud, is looking for the right French translation of the term “brown girls”, which recurs throughout the text. She calls on the lecturer in American civilization at the University of Tours Maboula Soumahoro to find the right word and read the manuscript carefully. Committed to debates on the decolonial question, “afropean” asserted, this researcher sees in her mission (paid) a simple question of “common sense, honesty and quest for quality”.

In Anglo-Saxon countries, “brown” commonly refers to people of color who are not black: Asians, Latinos and those from the Indian subcontinent or the Middle East. “ “Daughters of color” was not appropriate, because, in France, this term designates black people”, explains Maboula Soumahoro. After discussion with the editor and translator of the text, Emmanuelle Aronson, she proposed ” brown-skinned girls ».

A controversy on an unprecedented scale

Scanning descriptions of characters from ethnic, sexual and cultural minorities in a text in order to avoid offensive stereotypes is an uncommon approach in France. However, in a few years, this approach has become ubiquitous in the Anglo-Saxon world, under the name of sensitivity reading (sensitivity proofreading).

This new profession is developing at high speed, in a climate assimilated by some to a return to censorship and judged by others necessary for the industry, mainly white and privileged, to become aware of its racist, sexist or homophobic prejudices. Officially or not, all the major publishing houses have recourse to it and specialized agencies are multiplying.

Long confined to “young adult” literature (a sector that is often the subject of heated debate on social networks), the sensitivity reading became widespread following the publication ofAmerican Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins (ed. Philippe Rey), in 2020. Selected by famous television host Oprah Winfrey for her ultra-popular “Book Club”, broadcast on Apple TV +, recommended by star writers Stephen King, Don Winslow and John Grisham, the novel is then tipped to be one bestsellers of the year. It recounts the flight to the United States of a Mexican bookseller and her son threatened by Mexican cartels.

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In the world of publishing, the sensitive issue of “sensitivity readers”

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