The Doc Project

From self-hate to 'Black is beautiful': How this teen is rising above the pain of racism

After years of self-hate, 16-year-old Nate Sanders says he no longer tries to be “as white as possible.” He has regained his confidence and wants to empower other Black youth to do the same.

Montrealer Nate Sanders says he no longer tries to be ‘as white as possible’

Nate Sanders, 16, says years of facing racism filled him with self-hate but now he's proud to be Black and wants to help empower other youth who may be struggling (submitted by Nate Sanders)

At 16 years old, Nate Sanders beams with so much pride and confidence it might be hard to imagine him hating himself, but that was his state of mind just five years ago.

"I had reached the conclusion that Black was a negative thing — that if I could, I would wish to be white," he said. 

Sanders says he would suck in his lips so they appeared smaller, and would try to straighten his hair or hide it under a baseball cap.

"I was dealing with a lot of self-hate and a lot of deep shame."

For years, he didn't talk about his experiences with racism while growing up in Montreal or how they affected his mental health. He says opening up has helped him heal and he now wants to share his story in hopes of helping other Black youth who may be struggling.

Sanders says it got so bad for him in elementary school that he was depressed by the end of grade six.

"I got nothing done at that time. I had no friends, I gained a lot of weight," he said. "I would go to school, shut my mouth and try to be as white as possible, and then go back home."

The N-word

His first encounter with racism was in grade two, on the playground at school. A boy he didn't recognize approached and called him the N-word.

Nate Sanders was in grade two the first time he was called the N-word. He was stunned at the time and didn’t realize there would be many more incidents in the years to come. (Submitted by Nate Sanders)

"I remember feeling powerless in that moment," he said.

Sanders says his father had always told him, "if anyone ever calls you this word, you don't stand for it."

"But I'm in this position where this kid is twice my size. He's older than me. So in my head he has more authority than me." 

Sanders says there were few Black kids living in his neighbourhood in suburban Montreal, and few at school, so it was an isolating experience. His white friends could not relate.

Throughout elementary school he would frequently hear other students using the N-word.

"They knew it was offensive and, because it was offensive, they thought it was funny to say...and really blurt it out all the time," he said.

Labelled a threat

As Sanders grew taller he started experiencing racism in other ways too.

One day he and his brother were waiting for their mother outside a hair salon. Suddenly, the police showed up. 

Their mother stepped in and spoke to the officers. It turned out a man had called police assuming the boys were planning to break into his car or another car in the parking lot.

"He labelled us as 'criminal'," Sanders said, "when in reality we were walking back and forth on the sidewalk, that was outside the salon, waiting for Mom to get her hair done."

Teacher says N-word 

By grade nine, when Sanders was learning To Kill a Mockingbird in English class, he'd experienced enough racism to know his teacher was not racist. 

Still, hearing her use the N-word while teaching the book was painful.

"That word brings up trauma," he said. "It was like a constant reminder [that] you're Black, you're bad and you're an N-word." 

By grade nine Nate Sanders had experienced years of racism and found it traumatic to hear his English teacher use the N-word while teaching To Kill a Mockingbird. (Submitted by Nate Sanders)

He says there was a brief discussion in class, clarifying that the word should not be used in everyday conversation, but he didn't feel comfortable enough to share his thoughts. 

Sanders considered confronting his teacher after class about her use of the word, but was worried she wouldn't understand and that bringing it up might ruin a positive relationship with a teacher he respected.

"Despite saying this word, she was the one teacher that treated the Black students like people," he said.

So he put the idea of confronting her on hold.

The power of books

Later that school year, his aunt gave him a gift that changed everything: The Autobiography of Malcolm X. 

Sanders was already an avid reader but this was his first time reading a Black author. 

Black is beautiful, Black is powerful.- Nate Sanders

"[Malcolm X] talking about when he used to straighten his hair...all these things that he was saying in this book, it really affected me profoundly," he said. 

Sanders said his mindset shifted "from Black is negative…to me believing that Black is powerful, that Black is beautiful." 

He realized he'd never been assigned to read a Black author at school so he started seeking out those books on his own.

He was rebuilding his confidence, and then about a year after reading To Kill a Mockingbird, he found the courage to confront his former teacher about using the N-word in class.

Sanders says she told him it was not her intention to cause harm.

Teaching the teacher

He explained that the reception of that word is damaging, regardless of the intention. It is "dehumanizing, is degrading and is insulting to any Black person in the room," he said. 

The conversation went surprisingly well, he said, and led to more discussions. Recently that teacher told Sanders she has stopped using the N-word.

"It felt good because she understood the impact of that word better than she did before," he said. 

Still, he says, there's a long way to go.

"I was taught [at school] that slavery in Canada was next to non-existent. That's not the truth," he said. 

He's grateful that non-profit organizations such as Overture With the Arts work to fill that gap by doing Black history presentations at schools across Canada.

Meeting a Black author

When that tour stopped at his school, founder Akilah Newton gave him a copy of her book Big Dreamers: The Canadian Black History Activity Book for Kids.

"This is the first time that I had seen a piece of Black Canadian literature that had an ensemble of Black Canadian excellence," Sanders said. 

Newton says her book was originally intended for kids at the elementary school level, but many teens and young adults also appreciate the information and activities inside, all focused on Black Canadian role models. 

I can't wait to see what this kid's going to accomplish.- Akilah Newton, author

She was particularly impressed by Sanders, who told her students need access to more Black history material at school.

"It was beautiful to see a young Black man fighting for change," Newton said.

"I definitely see him as a future leader. I can't wait to see what this kid's going to accomplish."

Empowering the next generation

Sanders says he felt empowered by the stories in Newton's book and that inspired him to write a book about Black excellence in Montreal for a school project.

He has interviewed Newton, Kemba Mitchell, chairperson of the West Island Black Community Association, and several other Montrealers via video conference about their lives and career paths.

"I want to could be anything you want to be," he said. 

Sanders wants to get his book into local libraries so Black kids and teens can read it and feel empowered too.

"I feel like I can make an impact," he said.

These days, Sanders can hardly believe how depressed he once was, and he wants Black youth to know they're worthy, capable and beautiful.

He says he knows he will still be affected by racism, but said, "I've reached a point in my life where I've chosen to be more than those acts of racism or those words. That means being pro-Black." 

"So the way I feel about myself now, to make a long story short, is amazing."

About the producer

Shari Okeke is creator of Mic Drop, an award-winning CBC podcast for teens and pre-teens and she's eager to bring more young voices to The Doc Project.

This documentary was edited by Alison Cook.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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