In his essay “Why Blacks Should Read (and Write) Science Fiction” (in Sheree Thomas’ anthology Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora) Charles R. Saunders says, “The human imagination manifests itself in stories. Those same stories become legends, myths, the defining elements of a culture… We need to contribute to our culture’s overall mythology… and provide positive alternatives to the stereotypes that continue to plague us within that mythology.”
This is not to say that writers should only “write what they know” (as SF by definition goes far beyond our everyday experience) or to say that writers cannot accurately or sensitively portray characters outside their personal experience. The best writers can (I’m thinking here of some of the stories by Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison), but sometimes, even the best writers can’t—or don’t.
Sometimes the gaffes can be amusing, as in a “Star Trek” novel (I can’t remember which one) where Geordi LaForge (the character portrayed on film by LeVar Burton) is captured by some villains who are going to do something awful to him, something so awful that, despite his Starfleet training, he is afraid. How do we know this? Because, the writer said, “the color drained from his face” or “he turned pale—” I can’t recall the exact phrase, but it brought to mind those black characters in films from the 1940s who were soooo scared they turned white or the pigment flaked off their skin. (The interesting thing here is neither the writer, the editor, the proofreader, or however many people reviewed this manuscript caught this.)