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Sleeping Is Harder When You're Black

Even insomnia is racist, apparently.

Ryan  Brown

Ryan Brown

Image: Henry Lederer/Getty

Strip Club tonight : Stadium or Fuegos? I rubbed my eyes and blinked at my glowing iPhone screen. It was a text from a close friend. I pondered it. A strip club? At 1 am? On a Wednesday? Eh, crazier things have happened. I only live a mile from Stadium and three miles from Fuegos. But if I was going to get a wink of sleep tonight I knew what I had to do. I texted back lol fuck no, put my phone on Do Not Disturb and went back to my tossing and turning.

I love to sleep. Sinking into my memory-foam pillows is often the highlight of my day. But sleeping well without waking up sporadically is a struggle. I am a very light sleeper and the slightest noise stirs me. My mind wanders, I fidget and deal with anxiety from time to time. Ever since I was a kid, I've dealt with nightmares. Once I wake from one, that's the end of my sleep for the night. If it's not anxiously checking work email, it's giving the "fuck no" response to overzealous and undersexed friends. After a couple hours of attempted sleep, I turn on ESPN and mentally prepare myself for another long day where I know I'll fight to be productive.

More than a third of adults in America don't get enough sleep, and according to the limited amount of research on the subject, black people like myself report getting poorer-quality sleep—and straight up less sleep—than white folks. The unsavory correlations between poor sleep and negative health outcomes continues to be a focus for researchers and public health advocates. The general consensus is that we all need around seven to nine hours every night depending on personal health factors. Constant stress can keep you up at night no matter how hard you try to get those hours of slumber.

Everyone's got their baggage, and a lot of my mine stems from the way I am perceived as a young black man in this country. I love being social, but a night of drinking and a negative interaction with a police officer could mean jail, a beatdown, or losing my life. Recent research shows that the trauma that black people go through—more formally known as psychosocial stressors—are not only affecting how we live and interact, but also how we rest.

As a former social worker, I've counseled in some of the most underserved neighborhoods in DC. Just guiding individuals through their socioeconomic and health issues was sometimes horrifying. I know the rule of thumb is to never bring work home with you, but how do you expect to avoid it when you immerse yourself in trauma five to six days a week? It was nearly impossible to give myself a break mentally on many of those days. Working in these predominantly black neighborhoods, I often received phone calls and emails at all hours of the night from panicking clients who could not sleep.

From a mental health standpoint, studies show that a lack of sleep leads to emotional impairment and even makes individuals more violent. From a physical standpoint, it can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. By race, black people statistically have the highest rates in all of those health risks. We also have a lower life expectancy and infant mortality rates that are twice as high than those experienced by white people in the US. All of these health risks are linked with lackluster sleeping patterns, but the question is why are black people more heavily affected?

Fast forward hundreds of years past slavery, and statistics show black people feel the United States is not even close to achieving racial equality. Black people count for half of the homicide victims in this country and we are only 13 percent of the total population. When adjusted by population, we are also three times more likely to die in the hands of law enforcement. That's something to lose sleep over.

We are poorer when compared to other races. We get paid less for having the same college degrees and are more likely to be treated differently in the workplace. Being poorer means black people do not have the same access to healthcare and live in worse neighborhoods where we struggle to find adequate employment, housing, and even grocery stores. More research shows that those in the community who feel discriminated against, socioeconomically (and we know how closely race and class are intertwined, people) is literally causing them to lose sleep.

"Racism-related vigilance—which is being aware of your surroundings and expecting to be discriminated against based on your race—may lead to elevated levels of stress," says Atlanta-based epidemiologist Miriam Van Dyke. "And even if you are not being discriminated against [in that moment], that constant awareness can be harmful for your health. Your body not reacting to stress well can impact physiological pathways which can end up leading to sub-optimal sleep."

My own sleep patterns vary from night to night. My entire family has this bad habit where we all fall asleep with the television on, so I had to wean myself off of that and adjust to sleeping in total darkness. I keep my phone out of arm's reach to make it more difficult to check messages and email. I started going to bed very early during the week (a Golden Girl-esque 8:30 pm a lot of nights). Changing your diet and having more sex can help as well. I'm, uh, working on those.

Work will be there in the morning. That's what I have to tell myself now when I have the urge to do anything other than get my seven hours at night.

"We have to take better care of these vessels that we were given," says University of Maryland psychologist and trauma expert Carlton Green. "Whether it's exercising, handling our nutrition better, or getting more sleep, we have to physically and mentally train ourselves to take better care of our bodies. We have to detach ourselves from social media, not internalize discriminatory habits and do whatever we need to do to get our bodies to be more relaxed at the end of the day. If we don't, we are actually contributing to the trauma continuing to live in our bodies."