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What a cultural sensitivity editor actually does
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Producer and editor Tiara Darnell had always thought the role of cultural sensitivity editor was a myth. Something she’d heard rumors about, but didn’t actually exist. That was until she started actually doing the role.
The role is fairly common in publishing, but it’s becoming more widespread in audio. The job itself varies from production to production, but broadly speaking it involves a consultant giving notes on a show’s approach to or coverage of a particular topic or community, looking for potential bias or misrepresentation. It’s often around areas of race and gender, but it could be about disability, sexuality – any topic or community that has been historically marginalized or under-represented.
Tiara held this role for the Apple Original Missed Fortune, a nuanced story about a man searching for a chest of gold in the Rocky Mountains. Here Tiara fills me in on exactly what she does as a cultural sensitivity editor, and we chat about making stories about communities we don’t belong to, better hiring practices, and what we owe our characters.
First of all: do you prefer the term cultural sensitivity listener? I’ve also heard editor, reader and consultant.
I’ve heard it so many different ways. To me, it is an editorial [role]. So cultural sensitivity editor makes the most sense, because you are essentially going through a script or some tape and really listening for how the writing or tape aligns with the values that the producing team is trying to represent.
How did you get started working as a cultural sensitivity editor?
I haven’t been doing this work for too long, maybe the last year. Prior to that, I had heard that this role existed but I didn’t really believe it. I only knew one person doing it, and it almost felt like a one-off thing or an exception to the rule. It didn’t seem like it was real - but it very much is.
I started talking about it on LinkedIn, like, “hey I heard this exists and this is a skillset I can offer”. I listed it in my bio and on my website. The first time that I got to do it was for the Apple limited-run series Missed Fortune. My friend Peter Frick-Wright [the show’s host and exec producer] asked me because he knows me, we’re in the same audio nerd club in Portland. He felt like he had a blind spot: he as a white man was telling a story about a Black man who has some very traumatic family history.
And since then, I’ve also done cultural sensitivity reading for Ben & Jerry’s Into the Mix podcast. When we talk about values and alignment, they are really on that more than most brands. It’s been awesome to find myself in a position to help them with that.
Talk us through the process of working on Missed Fortune - at what stage were you brought in? What kind of notes did you give?
They were at the final stages of making editorial notes and cuts to really refine each episode. This was the final stage before they went into finishing up like mixing and mastering.
I just asked Peter to tell me a little bit about the story and the character, and if there was anything in particular that he was looking for. I wanted an idea of where he thought there might be a problem area. I like to have an idea of what people are looking for - but also I don’t want to know too much so I can go into it pretty objectively.
Then I listened. For example - there was a point where he’s talking about the Pullman rail workers. This was a group of Black men who worked on the train that went from the south to the north during the Jim Crow era. As a Black American, I’m familiar with the story of the Pullman Porters. I know that it was a point of pride to be a Pullman Porter - they always had freshly cleaned suits, they always looked good – it was a job that people aspired to. They looked up to the men who worked on this train.
I don’t remember the words that Peter used [in the original script] but I felt that the way he was describing the Pullman Porters didn’t fully capture that sense of pride. It needed to have that for the context.
And then also, the main character Darrell had issues with his mom. But there was one area of the story where it felt like Peter’s narration was saying that Darrell’s issues are all because of his mom. And I’m like, “no, they’re not all because of his mom. She definitely played a part, but he’s a grown man. At some point he has to take responsibility for his actions”.
It was Peter’s take on their relationship, rather than something Darrell had actually said.
In that case, the cultural sensitivity contribution is not just about having an eye for cultural sensitivity as it relates to Blackness and a white person writing about Blackness, but also a man writing about a woman and her relationship to her son. I think that there's a tendency to think that cultural sensitivity listening means that it only has a race context to it. And that's not necessarily the case.
It sounds like you’re almost keeping in check the conclusions or aspersions that we as hosts and producers can cast on characters’ lives that aren't necessarily in the tape. That feels like a really important part of the role.
Yeah, exactly. And like I said, it's not just about race, but also any other identity-related dynamic that the cultural sensitivity editor is doing for the team, because there’s a hole in the team - they don’t have that expertise [in-house]. So they have to call somebody who does have that lived experience.
And so what was the outcome of your work on that episode?
I’m pretty sure all of the suggestions I made, Peter took those into account. We had a conversation about them, so it wasn’t like I just put comments in a Google Doc and that was it. We really had a conversation. He was super receptive and complimented my editorial chops. It was a really good experience.
And it’s not to say that every experience is going to go exactly that way. But I think that it really speaks highly of producers and the host when they recognise, “this is an area that we don’t fully know, or is a little sticky, or could be more nuanced. But we don’t have that lived experience to be able to adequately determine if what we’re trying to say is representing the subject of the story.”
And again asking what our values are in terms of journalistic ethics and what we owe to the characters whose stories we’re telling: the people who trusted us with these stories. So I think it just kind of speaks highly of the team, when they can recognise that that's something that they need, and that they don't have it.
But also, on the flip side, it says something that the team doesn't already have that institutional knowledge and lived experience represented on their team – that they would have to call somebody in to fill the hole. Why isn’t that already represented on the team? It’s a double edged sort in that way.
That’s the tricky thing with cultural sensitivity work. Do you think this work is a stepping stone between where we are now, and a future where folks are more fairly represented within production teams? Or do you think productions should always have cultural sensitivity editors [no matter the representation on their teams]?
I don’t know that I agree that it's a stepping stone. To me, it seems like it’s more of a bandaid for an institutional problem. But a band aid is better than an open wound.
I don’t think that you necessarily need to include a sensitivity reader on your team if the representation is there. So if you know that you're going to be telling a story where the experience is nuanced, and the majority of the people on the team do not have lived experienced to be able to identify holes in the story or areas where greater care needs to be taken, then that’s kind of a problem. You need to have those people, then the cultural sensitivity role could be absorbed by someone within the team.
But then again the flip side to that is if I’m the only Black person on an all-white team, it might feel laborious to be the one always pointing these things out. Especially if doing that type of cultural sensitivity work is not something that I'm being paid for, in addition to my other duties as an editor or producer. So in some ways, it can also feel like an act of labor for the person who's tasked with that role if they were not intentionally hired to be a cultural sensitivity editor.
And then there’s also the potential problem of one person having to be the voice of an entire community or range of experiences.
We're not all monoliths, whether it's women or Black people, or whatever community. And so, if I make an editorial call, it's not to say that everybody's going to agree with me, because all of these things depend on my lived experience, too. At the end of the day, it just requires due diligence for the editor that you choose to do this type of work.
At the start you spoke about adding these skills to your resume, and we’ve also spoken about lived experience. So how did you develop the abilities and interest in this kind of work?
From my own personal experience, I lived in Oregon, in Portland, for almost eight years. And Portland - the Northwest in particular - is such a place of contradiction, and I think anger and ambivalence about what to do about the very violent racial history that the area and the state of Oregon has.
It’s not just there, but especially there and because of the fact that I became an adult in that city and really started to learn more about myself and who I was. And in a part of the country where Black people are few compared to the majority of white folks in that area. It really got me thinking a lot about race and my own experience and how I exist in the world, and how bias influences stories, especially when people from another community are telling a story about a community that they are not a part of.
So I was getting an education in this kind of work, because of my lived experience there and also just generally being a Black woman in the US. And so when I realized that this was a type of work that could be done, I believed that I had the tools to be able to do it and execute it.
But I do think that honestly, a lot of times, speaking things out loud is the way to get the work. So if it's something that you're interested in doing, maybe just saying that or offering that as a service, or putting it as an area of development or interest on your resume.
It's almost like the job of story editor, which I feel like people are becoming more aware of. Most people don't know that they need a story editor until they realize that they need a story editor. And so much like that, I think that this cultural sensitivity role will also be something that people will become more aware of, as more of the work is done and talked about.
Do you base your decision of who to work with on a production’s values?
I am looking at what the subject matter is. If I don't know the people on the team, then I'm looking at their LinkedIn and social media to get an idea of who is telling the story, what they've done in the past, if there's any other examples of their work, to give me insight into their approach to storytelling, and their choices when it comes to editorial decisions.
With Peter and Missed Fortune, I knew the types of things he worked on. I also appreciated the care that he took and the way he asked me. I think you can often tell from the way somebody approaches you to do this type of work. Because I think it's one of those things where it might feel awkward or difficult to even say that you need this kind of help; the ask is very telling.
And then with Ben & Jerry's, all I needed to know that it was was Ben & Jerry's. I just know enough about them as a brand and what they're about. They're loud about what they stand for. It was pretty much like a no brainer for me.
How has it been working for Ben & Jerry’s?
It started out as a one off-ask. But they asked me to come back and be available to do more episodes for them. It's the same type of work. This is different in the sense that it's not one particular character we're following over the course of a series; it’s a different guest each time.
But my approach was sort of the same. I listened to an interview they did with Ava DuVernay, for example. It was about her reasons for her approach to the storytelling that she does, as well as who she hires, and the ways in which she uses her platform to elevate and illuminate every producer. So her reasons for her activism in that way.
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