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Illustration by Hannah Buckman

Eternally woke: why aren’t black women getting enough sleep?

Black people have been getting less sleep than their white counterparts since slavery, but just how bad is the problem for black women?

21 Jan 2020

Skep, wake up fam.”

“I’m awake bruv.”

“You’re not awake fam, you’re sleeping!”

“I weren’t sleeping bruv, I’m just…I was just having a nap.”

“Bruv, why does no one ever want to get caught sleeping?”

When I first heard the outro of ‘No Sleep’ on Skepta’s new album Ignorance is Bliss, it gave me a flashback to anxiously reaching for the remote at my grandmother’s house while she cautiously slept. After waiting for the deep breaths to start, sure she was at the deepest point of sleep, I made my move. It was so easy: reach, grab and switch. She seemed to be sleeping like a log; it was supposed to be an casual win.

But as soon as my grip tightened around the remote, she jolted out of her sleep, asking me, “What are you doing?!” I’d been caught. “You were asleep, grandma!” I said. “No I wasn’t,” she replied. “I was just resting my eyes.”

The relationship between black people and sleep is long and fraught. I often wondered why my grandparents feigned rest and why my parents were so angry at me for sleeping in late. The fear of sleep in our community is attached to the idea of “laziness”, a word that has not only been used to oppress and ridicule the diaspora but those in our home countries too. Years of state violence, under-regulation and failing social policy have created the conditions in which black people now literally cannot sleep.

The damaging stereotypes of black people being “slow” and “lazy” are wrapped in the racist pseudoscience of eugenics. Nineteenth-century Louisiana physician Samuel Cartwright, who insisted that the way black people breathed meant they were “not unlike that of a newborn infant of the white race”, also used his branch of scientific racism to push the narrative of black people being lazy. “Left to pursue their natural inclinations,” he wrote, “[black people] devote a greater portion of their time to sleep.”

Everything about the slave trade and its function was also connected to the disruption of sleep. Whether it was the African villages raided at night, the squalid and cramped conditions on slave ships that made for sleepless journeys or the constant surveillance on plantations, enslaved people were forced into staying awake for long periods of time. Hard labour and whipping were, in fact, seen as the antidote to exhaustion. “More slaves are whipped for oversleeping than for any other fault,” wrote black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

The ability to sleep for enslaved people was also gendered. In his LA Times piece on sleep, race and slavery, Benjamin Reiss, the author of Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World, comments: “In the New World… Slaveholders systematically disallowed privacy as they attempted round-the-clock surveillance, and enslaved women were especially susceptible at night to sexual assault from white men.”

Ideas of idleness were then solidified through the Jim Crow era’s usage of caricatures to drum up hatred and feelings of superiority against enslaved people. These stereotypes were reproduced globally, used as the basis for racist political movements and legislation – such as apartheid – and internalised by black people globally. Though not as blatant, we see it in the way that the media sometimes portrays Africa and the Caribbean. For example, the Caribbean is a getaway location where everything is “slow” and “chilled”; the culture is always painted as mellow. This is in stark opposition to the constant hustle culture in our home countries that is now causing a non-communicable disease crisis. It’s ironic that though Spain has scheduled siestas – post-lunch naps that shut whole communities down – it’s Africa and the Caribbean that carry the stereotypes of slow-moving cultures.

Illustration by Hannah Buckman

A study completed by Warwick Medical School found that 150 million people in the “developing world” are affected by a global “sleepless epidemic” with strong links found between sleep problems, physical health and psychiatric conditions. Sleeplessness isn’t just a crisis of the West; as well as being linked to the transatlantic slave trade it is a by-product of the all-consuming wave of neoliberalism that spread globally in the ’70s. Sleeplessness has become almost ingrained in black people’s culture. Sleep is political, and so is the inability to sleep. Economic insecurity, racism and discrimination are robbing black people of their rest.

The state of sleep in the UK overall is bad. According to the NHS, one in three of us suffers from poor sleep and the 2018 Global Sleep Survey reported that British adults get a shocking 8.76 days less sleep a year on average compared to adults globally.

As a nation, we are sleep deprived and the biggest reason is stress. In 2018, the Mental Health Foundation reported that 74% of UK adults were so stressed at some point over the previous year they felt unable to cope. Considering the rising cost of living, political instability and “sleep when you’re dead” culture we have adopted as a nation, it isn’t surprising. Our 24/7, immediate-response cities have completely changed how we view rest and downtime. As well as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and memory loss, lack of sleep can make you delusional, less empathetic and more sensitive to pain. Essentially, sleep is the glue that holds our lives together, and without it, we are merely angry, grouchy zombies with failing organs and no friends. Though the reason behind sleep is still a mystery, its function is very clear; it gives your body a chance to rejuvenate and restore itself so you can be physically and mentally prepared for another day.

“It’s ironic that though Spain has scheduled siestas it’s Africa and the Caribbean that carry the insulting stereotype of being slow-moving”

Your ability to rest is not independent of your identity or socioeconomic position. Yes, everyone is sleeping a lot less and a lot worse than before, but when we zero in on the sleeping habits of black people globally, we see something worrying. Chronobiology professor Malcolm von Schantz, who worked on a review article in 2017 about sleep across ethnicities, explains to me that “sleep inequalities can go along various different lines where some populations for various reasons are able to get more sleep than others”.

When it comes to race, the differences in sleep will “mostly be due to socioeconomic reasons as opposed to biological differences”, he says. In the US, where the majority of sleep studies have been conducted, he believes this will be hard to disentangle. “People who may have to work two jobs, for example, are obviously likely to sleep less. Of course there are some very rich people who don’t sleep very much for other reasons, but there are people who cannot afford to sleep the number of hours they do need.”

Although Malcolm says that “most of what we know about human biology, including sleep, is performed mostly on people of European descent, a minority of the world’s population”, and that “it would be very arrogant to assume that everybody’s bodies are acting in the same way to white Europeans”, especially when many black and brown people evolved closer to the equator, he still impresses the point that centuries of disenfranchisement are the main reason why there is evidence that points towards black populations getting less sleep globally.

The indisputable fact that black people are getting less sleep is repeated in many different countries. A 2015 study by the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Delaware looking into the “ethnic differences in sleep duration”, specifically in the UK, found that short sleep was twice as prevalent in black people than in white people. Sleeplessness and insomnia were also heavily attributed to black Brits and, subsequently, the likelihood of dying from cardiovascular diseases. This is because, in the UK, black people are more likely to live in overcrowded, noisy, polluted areas with ambient lights and high crime.

Illustration by Hannah Buckman

Beyond these studies, there has been little research done into the sleep quality of black Brits, and particularly black British women. There is evidence that British women need more sleep than men but that conversely, we get less of it.

“When you can’t sleep, you’re left alone with your own thoughts a lot (which can be good and bad), and also you don’t have time to reset, so it affects my mental health and mood during the day,” says Susuana Amoah, a 27-year-old gallery supervisor and communications manager.

Like many of the black women I spoke to, Susuana’s issues with sleep began when she was studying at university. “I just couldn’t sleep until 4am, then at 8am I’d have to be up for my 9am lectures. I was really homesick and unhappy during my undergrad. I also wasn’t eating properly.”

As someone who was academically average or occasionally (ever-so-slightly) above average, I always felt like I had something to prove. Academia wasn’t my strong suit, but the creative arts and political advocacy were. At school, I developed a questionable habit of trying to maintain my grades while immersing myself in activities and programmes that showed I could shine outside of formal education. My weekdays would consist of school, then straight to dance, cheer, drama or Youth Parliament depending on the day of the week.

I see my experiences reflected in Zahira Alleyne, a 21-year-old student who tells me that “being a black woman in academia and trying to stand out for jobs means I have to work twice as hard and put in extra hours just to get noticed. I have to sacrifice sleep to gain those extra marks for university or learn other skills”.

Jeannelle Brew, a 23-year-old editorial trainee, says that she “hardly slept” during her masters. “Feeling dazed felt like my constant state. I lost my appetite and ability to concentrate fully in conversations,” she says. “This period of my life was extremely stressful, and this was the worst my insomnia had ever been.”

“I saw sleep as something that could be sacrificed, and I forced productivity out of every hour of the day”

Though these issues usually start at university, they follow you into working life. “When I started working in an office,” Jeannelle continues, “and I had a new hairstyle, trying to anticipate the thoughts and reactions of my colleagues would affect my ability to switch off and relax. Because I’d be thinking of all the 10 billion possibilities that I’d face. This would be coupled with other worries, like being a perfectionist and worrying about a mistake I had made that day.”

Similarly to Jeannelle, my habits around sleep stuck with me through sixth form, university and even now, in work. I saw sleep as something that could be sacrificed, and I forced productivity out of every hour of the day, not realising the impact it was having on my body. Before I knew it, I’d worn my body down so much that even the slightest experience of stress left me bed-bound with tonsillitis. I’d miss weeks of term time due to exhaustion and general inability to sleep. My pursuit of excellence and recognition at the expense of sleep was driving me to poor health.

Alegría Adedeji, a 27-year-old screenwriter and film director from London, used to feel guilty for sleeping. “I think I probably tied a lot of self- worth to productivity and almost maybe tied a lot of self-worth towards the feeling of exhaustion itself… I think one’s sleep pattern and the relationship that you have with your sleep is very much tied, especially in this day and age, to your productivity and how well you think you’re doing because you see these articles like ‘CEO on four hours of sleep a night’.”

Unsurprisingly, the issues impacting black Brits are incredibly similar to those affecting African Americans. Statistically, African Americans get a lot less sleep than their white counterparts and their health suffers because of it. You can see this clearly when taking the subway late at night in metropolises like New York. It’s mainly black and Hispanic people that line the corners and crevices of near-empty subway carriages. They’ve just finished their shifts and their eyes are fluttering to stay awake. There’s good reason why America is known for being home to the city that never sleeps. And, at the intersection of race, gender and sleep, we see that black women in America fare worse. They receive 45 minutes less sleep than their white counterparts and are much more likely to have insomnia. They’re also less likely to be diagnosed than white women, leaving them susceptible to a range of chronic health conditions. All in all, black women are more likely to have poor sleep quality, shorter sleep duration and extended periods of wakefulness.

What black Americans lack in sleep they make up for in high rates of sleep disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnea, which is caused by pauses in breathing during sleep and can lead to various cardiovascular diseases and hypertension. One of the significant factors affecting black people’s ability to sleep is where they live. Noise aside, poor urban areas tend to have dangerously high levels of air pollution that lead to sleep-disordered breathing. There are also socioeconomic limits that stop black Americans from accessing the proper medical care and support to report on any sleep-related health issues they may have. Many people either never receive a diagnosis or receive it too late, so not only is the issue understated – it’s oftentimes not being dealt with at all.

Illustration by Hannah Buckman

I spoke to Jayce Ellis, 39, an attorney and writer from Northern Virginia who has severe insomnia, and asked her about how her blackness affects her ability to sleep. “Between having to navigate the feelings of a tonne of people who don’t care about mine, to worrying about whether someone will decide that my husband is too big and too black and drives too nice a car to come home, I think those unique stresses make sleep difficult,” she tells me. “It’s one of the reasons we’re considering moving to a neighbourhood that is a higher percentage black. I want to come home and be able to exhale.”

Even outside of these communities, the quality of work taken up by black people exposes them to harmful airborne irritants. The shift work, night work and 40+ hour weeks disproportionately taken up by black Americans is causing their sleep to suffer. Stress-induced by workplace harassment, inflexible managers and little to no support by higher-ups is taken home and leads to inconsistent, low-quality sleep. We’ve all seen the stories of black women being harassed at work due to their hair being seen as “messy”. Or the black former Facebook manager who exposed the company for failing to do anything about the way black members of staff were accosted and suspiciously questioned by security on a daily basis. White Americans, on the other hand, are more likely to have structured work schedules that allow for sleep and faceless, on-the-job bullying.

Black people across the globe are navigating complex social and historical relationships with sleep. The personal is the political – and what’s more personal than sleep? The act of sleep in itself is resistance; it’s in direct opposition to everything that this capitalist society tells us about the importance of activity. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how every waking moment of my life can serve capitalism, how my hobbies can turn into side hustles, and it’s destroyed my ability to truly rest.

Researching the importance of rest and particularly the way it links
to black women’s identities has been incredibly eye-opening. I no longer feel alone, but also feel a duty to remind black women that not only is rest resistance but it’s restoring. We cannot pour from an empty cup so we have to do right by ourselves first. Only now, at 23, am I trying to find a healthy balance. I still occasionally have to take sleeping pills when dealing with anxiety, but overall, I notice the difference that being in tune with your body makes.

Taken from gal-dem’s print issue UN/REST, on sale now