Racial disparity is hurting our sleep

It’s easy to imagine that getting into a healthy sleep routine is just a matter of silencing our inner toddler– who’s begging for one more snack or story or show or scroll of Twitter before bed– and choosing to shut off screens and head for our pillow when our phone’s bedtime reminder tells us to. But for many Americans, there’s a bigger barrier to getting a healthy night’s sleep: racial disparities.

The sleep struggle is real for people of color

If you’ve ever checked your fitness tracker in the morning for a little validation after a night of too little or too restless sleep, you know how wrecked you can feel when you don’t get the sleep you need. The disturbing reality for many Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) in America is that this kind of bad sleep is frequently the norm.

People of color in America– particularly Black Americans– tend to get poorer quality sleep over all, and have a higher incidence of some serious sleep disorders. Studies have shown that Black Americans are five times more likely than white Americans to get short sleep, the greatest disparity of any racial or ethnic group, and Black Americans get significantly less deep sleep, which helps with memory and learning.

Researchers also find a significantly higher instance of sleep apnea among Black Americans, which is a dangerous health condition that has a huge impact on overall health and can even be deadly. On the less extreme, but still serious, end of the spectrum, poor quality sleep and under-sleeping is connected to a host of health conditions, including heart disease and serious accidents.

How racial disparities cause sleep problems for BIPOC people

The research is clear that these sleep issues aren’t due to some inherent difference between different racial and ethnic groups. Instead, the cause can be found in our society, economy and culture.

BIPOC people make up a disproportionate share of hourly and shift workers. The “essential” workers we depend on to make and deliver our food, keep our buildings and residences clean, take care of us in the hospital and staff retail stores also tend to work unconventional or unpredictable hours, or work multiple jobs, making it difficult-to-impossible to develop a healthy sleep schedule (particularly for those on the dreaded “clopening” shift). Many of these shift jobs are also low-paying, adding the kind of financial stress that keeps people up at night.

black and white image of Black woman seated on ground, leaning against a wall outside. She rests her head on her far leg while her near leg curls under her

Photo by Teddy Tavan from StockSnap

These types of jobs also frequently don’t offer health insurance, making it difficult for those experience sleep apnea or other sleep disturbances to get the medical care they need. And racial disparities in our health system overall mean BIPOC people often receive a lower standard of care– or don’t trust the healthcare system enough to seek medical care in the first place.

The way our neighborhoods are built can play a role as well. Red lining and other racist housing policies forced Black and brown neighborhoods literally to the margins of our communities– near highways and industrial areas– and into parts of our cities where bright lights and loud noise are the norm.

The stress from racism itself may also be disturbing the sleep of BIPOC Americans. Researchers speculate that the chronic stress of enduring day-to-day racial prejudice may actually keep Black Americans in particular from relaxing enough to slip into that all-important deep sleep cycle.

What can we do to make sure all of us can sleep?

Problems that come from how our society is structured can’t be solved through good habits alone, but good habits are never a bad idea. It’s good for all of us to understand the role sleep plays in our overall health, and to take steps to get the best sleep we can each night.

As we’ve seen, employers have a huge role to play in whether or not their workers can get a good night’s sleep, or can access healthcare. If you employ people, you can take a close look at your scheduling practices to make sure hours are healthy and predictable for your workers, and take an honest look at how your wages stack up against the cost of living in your community.

Two workers behind the counter at an independent coffee shop
Photo by Afta Putta Gunawan from StockSnap

As consumers, we can let businesses know that we care about their employees’ health and are factoring that into our buying decisions. Contact the manager of your favorite grocery store, coffee shop, or other retail establishment and ask if they offer predictable scheduling and living wages for all their workers.

Local, state and federal governments set wage standards and labor laws, and you don’t need to be an expert to get in touch! Use this website to find your elected representatives at any level of government, and send each of them a quick message letting them know you’re worried about the racial disparities in sleep and want to know what they’re doing about it.

Get a response from taking any of these actions? I‘d love to know what you hear!


Sources for this article include:

What’s the connection between race and sleep disorders?” SleepFoundation.org

The racial inequality of sleep,” The Atlantic

Do Black Americans get less sleep than white Americans?” Medical News Today

Racial disparities in sleep: The role of neighborhood disadvantage,” Sleep Medicine

Study finds connection between race and sleep,” Washington Post

Scientists start to tease out the subtler ways racism hurts health,” NPR

Health disparities by race and ethnicity,” Center for American Progress

// Feature photo by cottonbro from Pexels // Photo illustration by Amy Clark for Sleepie Blog