Sleeping Problems Linked to Racism

Have a racist encounter during the day? Chances are, if you were on the receiving end of that encounter, you’re not sleeping well tonight. New research suggests that experiences of racial discrimination are associated with an increased risk of problems sleeping. These problems may in turn have a negative impact on mental and physical health.

My sleeping Angel
(Creative Commons License photo credit:Michael Brindley

The study involved an analysis of data from the 2006 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), which is administered by the CDC. The BRFSS is the largest, ongoing telephone health survey of American adults, administered annually to people selected by states and random-digit-dialing. Researchers analyzed responses from 7,093 people in Michigan and Wisconsin, which were the only states to collect data on both sleep and racism.

The results of the study show that there was a link between experiences with racism and self-reported problems with sleeping. Experiences of racism – which the health disparities literature insists on referring to as “perceived racism,” as if the problem is with perception – is assessed with the question: sorted into two cateogires as either “worse” or “same or better.” Respondents were classified as having problems with sleep if they reported having difficulty sleeping at least 6 nights in the past 2 weeks. Lead researcher and author Michael A. Grandner, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania, is quoted in an interview saying:

“This study found that an environmental stressor that exists purely at the social level—perceived racial discrimination—had a hand in how likely a person was to experience disturbed sleep. The most surprising finding in this study was that individuals who perceived racial discrimination were more likely to experience sleep difficulties, and it did not matter if they were black or white, men or women, rich or poor, or even if they were otherwise depressed or not, since these were adjusted for in the statistical analysis.”

There are a couple of things to note about this research. First and foremost is the somatic, bodily impact of racism on those who experience it.  Second, the overly cautious academic language of “perceived racism” undermines the voices and experiences of those in the studies who shared their experiences with researchers, relegating them to the realm of “perception,” the truth of which is to be determined later and by someone else, more removed, objective, and whiter.

Finally, what struck me about this research was that it’s framed within the language of health disparities in which the focus is always on African American, Latino, Asian and Native American folk. This is fine as far as it goes, as when it highlights the unequal burden placed on some when it comes to health.

What’s missing from this analysis is the unequal benefit that white people reap in all this. Encounters with racism are sometimes structural, sometimes personal. Over and over again in research like Living with Racism and The Myth of the Model Minority and Racism without Racists and Everyday Injustice and Racism in Indian Country, scholars have documented the experiences of Black, Asian, Latina/o and Native Americans with racist whites and with white power structures. Yet, the health disparities literature still frames these experiences as “perceptions” and white actors are rendered invisible through the academic use of the passive voice.

My guess is that most white folk are not losing sleep at night because of racism, and as a result of that, get an unearned benefit of greater physical and mental health.