It's important to think about this stuff, examine one's self honestly, and then act (write) in honest and respectful ways. Ironically, I think those of us who lie for a living - er, write fiction - have a huge obligation to honesty.
I write the "other" frequently in my fiction, including gays and women and people of other ethnic groups than myself, because a story needs one of those particular characters. Some groups are easier to write than others, because they're closer to my own groups, and it's simpler to get those right. Others, I need to ask representatives of those groups to give it a read and let me know how I did. Over time and with feedback like that, I get better at writing the other and get more confident at it, too, which makes it better, and so on.
I haven't tried some characters because their other-ness was too challenging, even when such a character would be important to a story... something I'll have to explore.
This reminds me:
I have a friend who came from lots of money. He went to college and discovered that many people in the college town were homeless, often hungry, and addicted to this and that. He couldn't understand them, and this bothered him. So what did he do? He gave up his apartment, stuck his few belongings into a storage unit, and lived on the street with these folks for a year... in British Columbia. Where it gets nasty in the winter. All while working on his degree. He learned a lot about the other side of the economic coin, made friends with people he would never have met hadn't he been brave in this way, and became a more-rounded person. The only reason he gave it up after a year was that his girlfriend freaked out when she learned he was living with "those people."
Anyhow, though he was never in the same danger as those folks - in fact could have escaped that life at any time, unlike "those people" - now he can talk at length about what it means to live on the street. He cares more about the homeless than most anyone I've ever met, because he understands them in ways most of us simply can't. And he sure as hell could write about it better and more convincingly than I. That's dedication to researching and trying to better understand the other.
Still, I don't think true homeless people would accept him as an authority on what it means to be a homeless person, because he never really was; rather, he was just observing at close range, like an anthropologist observing a tribe that the West has only just discovered. Living with that tribe for a year doesn't make him part of the tribe, but now he can write about the tribe in ways that enlighten the rest of us - and perhaps better than they could write about themselves, for the Western audience.
Such a dedicated researcher can do great service to the "other" by being honest and brave, really observing with open eyes and mind, and then writing for his or her own culture in ways that the audience understands, if s/he can communicate clearly, honestly, bravely, and without prejudice or judgment. The best fiction can change the world by helping us understand the other, because every one of us is "the other" to everyone else. I believe that this otherness is the root of most human problems.
Anyhow, that's what I feel. I guess this topic really got me going!
What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you write about the other or use characters who don't come from your background? Were you raised in a different culture than the one where you find yourself today, and how has that affected you? How do you feel about people from other cultures or sub-cultures writing about your culture or sub-culture?