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.


  1. Blaque Swan

    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.

    Yeah, that irks me, too. It makes me think of the argument I’ve heard on numerous occasions that people of color, African Americans in particular, see racism where there is none. I wonder when, if ever, they’ll publish some study of how many of these “perceived” incidents of racism are actually real.

    Moreover, as you mentioned, whites are nowhere to be seen in narratives like these. It’s as though racism is this invisible, intangible force no one can control.

    • lmfort

      Most white Americans in today’s society are delusional about racism. To them, racism only exist when the KKK comes out of hiding or when obvious racist groups speak up in favor of racism. The ‘anti-racist’ whites tend to get angry and create a mob mentality similar to the KKK.

      Its interesting to me because the racism that the KKK represent does not hold any power in today’s society. Yet ‘non-racist’ whites are eager to fight against them. But when it comes down to institutional racism, structural racism or microaggressions, they are in denial about it.

      Black people, specifically during the Civil Rights Movement, NEVER expressed violence towards hate groups like the KKK. Even now we don’t. I believe that whites are embarrassed by these groups and by fighting back against them, its a way of separating themselves from racism. They are delusional about institutional racism because it proves that ‘non-racist’ whites are or can be racist.

      • Blaque Swan

        I abso-to-lutely agree! I think they fight against groups like the KKK to separate themselves from that form of racism so they can continue enjoying the benefits of institutional racism without feeling (as?) guilty. Plus, according to the moral credential effect:

        An individual’s track record as a good egalitarian individual can establish an unconscious ethical certification, endorsement, or license within that individual and this will increase their likelihood of making less egalitarian decisions later.

        • lmfort

          Thank you for posting that link! I never heard of the moral credential before! While whites acknowledge traditional racist, they can be COMPLETELY delusional about modern racism.

          • Blaque Swan

            Cool. I only posted it in case someone thought I was making that up (the term “moral credentialing effect,” that is, not that act/denial)! LOL! Glad to help.

  2. John D. Foster

    Thanks so much for the great post, Jessie. This is an area (i.e., the impact of systemic racism on health disparities) that has been and continues to be ignored (particularly by whites). I’m currently working on an NIH grant with some colleagues looking at possible disparities related to perceived discrimination, institution type (i.e., whether attending an HBCU or a predominantly white institution), and substance use for African American early adults. We’re basically making the case for HBCUs that they remain relevant while also building on the work of Feagin, Vera and Imani (“Agony of Education”) and Feagin and McKinney (“The Many Costs of Racism”) that black Americans suffer in myriad ways in predominatly white social spaces. I will most definitely look at this article in more detail!
    Regarding your problem with the concept “perceived discrimination,” I’m with you on that. I suppose it’s useful to a point, in the tradition of SI theorists like Cooley, but I’ve already had at least one white colleague basically say that blacks perceive discrimination when it doesn’t exist. As others have shown (e.g., Bonilla-Silva’s “White Supremacy & Racism”) blacks and other people of color are LESS likely to realize they’re being discriminated against than know it happened due to the ways racial discrimination have changed; i.e. it has gone undercover.

  3. mgrandner

    I am lead author on the study mentioned in the article. This is an important discussion, and I am glad that this work is sparking discussion. I rarely get a chance to join in any of these conversations, but there are a few things that I wanted to say that might clear some things up.

    1. The idea of describing the phenomenon as “perceived” racism is not meant to argue that the problem is anyone’s perception (as opposed to “reality”). Rather, this is a technicality that has more to do with the scientific nature of the study. The survey that these data came from asked a question about a person’s experience. Since this was self-reported, it is described as “perceived racism.” If the methods of the study changed, so would the terminology. If, for example, the study observed individuals throughout the day and saw how they were treated, it would be called “observed racism.” It’s not that racism is about perception, but rather the methods of the study measured an individual’s perception. This was not meant to “undermine the voices and experiences of those in the studies who shared their experiences.” This was a scientific paper, and scientific language needs to be precise regarding the type of measurement. That’s all it means — there is no negative connotation here. The negative (dismissive) connotation of “perception” that is being argued above might apply more broadly, but not in this instance.

    2. I completely agree that in my personal experience, Black/African-American individuals experience a lot more racism (and the negative downstream effects) than White/European-American individuals, especially in the US. However, the data used in this study told a slightly different story. Statistically, there was no interaction between Race/Ethnicity and Racism on Sleep Disturbance. That means that, mathematically, the relationship between racism and sleep did not differ between Black and White groups. There was a trend for the Black group to report more racism than the White group, but this was not borne out statistically. This may have been due to (1) the nature of the survey question, and (2) the nature of the sample. The sample was ~90% White, and only consisted of individuals from Michigan and Wisconsin. So these results support the idea that racism is bad for your health, but the results should not be taken too far out of context.

    3. One of the comments above referenced institutional racism. I think that is a great topic for future research, as part of a larger need to explore racism in multiple ways. For now, the best that was available was this self-reported, retrospective survey item. As most of the comments above point out, this insufficiently captures the experience of racism. I frankly agree and hope that this study raises some awareness and prompts others to look at this issue in better ways.

    (By the way, I stumbled into this thread randomly so I may not be around to reply. If you have questions or comments, you can send me an email. You can go to for current contact info.)

    • Kristen

      I’m glad the researcher wrote in with clarifications. However, I do not find them adequate. Particularly, with points 2 and 3. Perhaps it’s related to the problem of scholars’ tendency to be narrowly-versed in the interdisciplinary literature that relates to their areas of study. For example, “institutional racism…a great topic for future research” — Is the author somehow of the impression that there is no substantial theoretical and empirical research in existence on institutional racism?! Both Jessie and John D. Foster mention several major books on this very topic as it relates specifically to racialized experiences and health/wellbeing – and there are many many more on other subtopics.

      Maybe I’m a different brand of social scientist, but I just never understood the reticence to make connections – even just a mention – between one’s necessarily-limited study and other research (and not just in conversation, but in the article itself). Are scholars just honestly uninformed, or are they scared to offer a broader context (even if only modestly)? As a sociologist, I deem it my responsibility to place my assertions/findings within a larger context and to draw links to other research studies – you know, especially when it comes to systemic issues of real-world inequality that could use some systemic change. It just sounds a lot of times like scholars throw up their hands and say, “Oh, the broader reality/context… yeah, I believe it’s real, but I can’t comment on it officially.” Scholars think they can’t “politicize” their good science, but it’s political either way. What they/we do only feels like neutrality from the dominant group’s perspective.

      • stacey

        I agree with Kristen that researchers are often hesitant to “politicize” their work. They often cling to a sense of objectivity that masks underlying biases. However, as someone who routinely uses perceived racism as a variable, I think it’s not only necessary but useful. First, it’s simply unwise to make claims that your data can’t substantiate. If the authors had described the experiences as simply racism, they would most likely get caught up in the same counter-productive conservations we’re discussing. “How do you know it’s racism?” Better to accurately and narrowly describe the relationship and then place the findings in a broader set of work. I absolutely agree that these studies need to contextualize their findings. It would be totally appropriate to discuss how non-Whites experience more racism and how these experiences negatively impact their health.

        I’d also like to say that I think perception is also key because there are racial minorities who experience racism, but do not perceive it to be racism (e.g. that’s just the way people treat immigrants, most people are just jackasses, etc.). I would be curious if health outcomes are the same for those who experience similar levels of racism but perceive it/rationalize it in different ways.

        • Blaque Swan

          I’d also like to say that I think perception is also key because there are racial minorities who experience racism, but do not perceive it to be racism (e.g. that’s just the way people treat immigrants, most people are just jackasses, etc.). I would be curious if health outcomes are the same for those who experience similar levels of racism but perceive it/rationalize it in different ways.

          Yeah, that’d be interesting.

          Also, It’d be nice if researchers would think of a word better than perceived. Maybe reported racism or something. Or at least add in the appendices or footnotes some sort of statement on how often racism occurs beyond that of perception.

          • Kristen

            Actually, I don’t have a problem with the term “perceived racism” – I think it accurately describes what those research studies are measuring… Although I do agree that the term “perception” can be used against folks (especially of color) to claim that this racism (and its negative effects) originate in their own minds. “Reported racism” does seem a bit better in this regard.

            And of course scholars who study perceived racism should always note research showing that people of color tend to downplay and underreport experiences with racism (which the author of the above study does not note in his comments).

            But I think what I really take issue with is when studies on racism (or any other -ism) fail to acknowledge or cite any kind of systemic racism, or racism-as-social-structure perspective. In other words, when they racism as individual acts perpetrated here and there, by individual people. This kind of limited perspective can allow such common assertions as, “Whites experience fewer acts of racism than people of color.” I acknowledge that the racial landscape has changed over time, but I would just really love for someone to explain to me when racism in the U.S. stopped being the systemic marginalization and oppression of those defined as nonwhite and started being individual moments with any person as target and any person as perpetrator. Racism is, I think, uniquely diluted in this way. For example, very few scholars would move their mouths to say that men experience “less sexism” than women – because there is a tacit agreement that the study of sexism essentially IS the study of oppression/discrimination against women. Academia is completely steeped in and blinded by whiteness.


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