As I've stated, I've never been to Detroit. I've also never been to South Africa. Why is this relevant?
Well, when I write Steampunk, though the first of my Steampunk novels starts in England, it goes to Africa rather quickly, settling in South Africa as the location of Steampunk novels 2 and 3 (though 3 is severely flawed and will probably be cannibalized into another novel entirely). I need to do quite a lot of research about South Africa to make this work, even in a Steampunk world wherein I've altered the history of some things. Some architectural things still stand where in the real world, by the 1880's in which the first novel kicks off, they exist no longer. Or, they were a failed dream.
But alternate history does not change existing culture such that I can just run roughshod over it. I've avoided most issues of race and apartheid by writing about only displaced Europeans, or girls born to Europeans. A couple of my main characters are intended to be Afrikaner, though, and I need to know and represent, accurately, what that entails. I can't put words that do not exist into a culture's mouth.
Part of this is mitigated by the fact that my characters do tend to be teenage girls, and so have little to do with politics, or political current events. I've created a war that didn't really occur, but also rode on the coattails of the second Anglo-Boer war, about which I know more than the Wikipedia article, but cannot at current claim to be a scholar of. Being character centric helps, to a degree, as a fictional individual can think whatever he or she likes. However, I need to research my guts out, because I'm speaking from my white American middle class vantage point here. Hell, even if I was writing about the American Civil War, I'd do more research, versed though I am with Gone with the Wind. I've thought about doing American Steampunk, during about the same time period, but my thoughts go back to South Africa. I'm no sure what sparked my interest in the country; an anthropology professor I had several classes with in college used to
live in South Africa, so that might be it.
My werewolf novels take place in Appalachia and the American South, and I still need to know more, Yankee that I am. Being American helps here, and Google Maps is great for location, but it comes down to respect and accuracy. I'm creating a culture within a culture (wolfception), but even if I'm not hitting a home run on what people in the mountains of North Carolina are like (for the amount of time spent there), I still need to get to first base at the very least. Can't whiff or strike out. I need a reasonable facsimile of a place, not something that's only got the labels slapped on and is completely wrong otherwise.
Advice I read given to fellow writers is you can't worry about offending people. You can't let that paralyze you, or stop your writing, and I agree with that to a point. I use bad words (!), not everybody I write is nice people, very bad things happen sometimes. But as a writer, I feel a responsibility to be accurate, and to have respect for the types of people I'm writing about, even in the most fictional of examples. I am not the most sensitive of people; I'm occasionally an outright bitch, sometimes just for comedic effect and sometimes because I hate everything and really mean it. But I also hate getting things wrong, and I hate accidentally insulting people.