Dear Dr. Comer:

I am white. My 22-year-old niece had a baby girl by a married black man. He later abused her and has now been forbidden by a judge to see her. She refused to give the baby up for adoption and is now living alone, on public welfare, trying to raise a 4-month-old child.

Her father and mother (my sister) have gotten over their anger and separation but they are not affectionate with the child. Although the aunts and uncles don't like the situation, we have a strong sense of family obligation and we would like to help. But we don't know how and more importantly, our niece resents our religious lifestyle.

We are confused and would appreciate ideas you have which might help us to help her.

My questions are these:

How have other bi-racial children fared?

Will she be accepted by her peers?

The baby has an olive complexion. Will she get darker in the sun? What will be the color of children she might have in the future?

Do such children marry black or white people?

N. H.

Dear N. H.:

The situation you describe is very complex. I will first respond to your questions, then talk about what appears to be going on in your family and make some specific suggestions.

Most bi-racial children, or transracially adopted children, are born to or live with fairly well-educated people with adequate income and status in their communities. These families are more often urban and diverse enough for the children to find acceptance in one or more peer groups. Early studies suggest that overall they are faring reasonably well.

Yet, I know of one case similar to your family situation in which the child was abused by a mother and grandparents and was eventually sent to a foster home. The outcome for a given child depends a great deal on the location and most of all, on the people involved.

Because color ranges in blacks and whites from dark to light, it's difficult to predict eventual skin color. But most people darken, within limits, after repeated exposure to the elements.

Most people consider bi-racial children as black and subsequent marriages to a white person is again a bi-racial marriage. A second bi-racial marriage is not infrequent, though marriage to a black person is more common.

Your comments about religion suggest that your niece may be challenging whether you live by the principles you preach. She has a right to relate to the people of her choice. But having a baby by an abusive, married man suggests poor judgment or self-harmful, spiteful behavior. Her dissatisfaction with the family style, and perhaps rebellion against it, and her own poor judgment could cause her to act again in ways which will complicate her life unless you all deal with the underlying issues.

While your questions show concern for the welfare of the baby, there may be some wish that she be able to pass as white. Your niece is likely to see such a wish as hypocrisy and be further alienated.

Bi-racial children have the most identity confusion and psychological damage where families and friends don't accept and become comfortable with the fact that such children are both black and white, but will be seen as black by others. Efforts to straighten the hair and scrub the skin white have created problems for such children. Fortunately such cases appear to be in the minority.

Your sister and her husband are the key figures here. They are the ones being most challenged by your niece. Your niece is probably struggling for independence while still harboring some desire to remain dependent. It's likely that your niece is observing her parents' attitude toward the baby to see how they feel about her. A white mother in a similar situation said to me, "My parents can't love me and reject my baby. My baby is me." Young people who view their parents as hypocrites often hurt themselves to spite their families.

To be helpful, your sister and brother-in-law are going to have to be able to say or act in a way that says, "Okay, here is how we feel about your out-of-wedlock pregnancy, your interracial child and our granddaughter, your being on public welfare (or whatever they are angry about). But you are our daughter. We care and want to be helpful. Where and how do we go from here?"

This must be done in a way that reflects honesty and a genuine desire for reconciliation and involvement. If your sister and her husband do not have to deny their feelings, the feelings can change. They are less likely to be seen as hypocrites by their daughter. They may need help from professional or religious counselors who have their own feelings on these issues under control.If they are not available, you and other family members might try to talk about your feelings and how best to be helpful.