Sleep and social privilege, or why rich white people like me should stop whining about how tired we all are

It’s the second week of daylight savings time and I don’t know about you, but my friends are all still talking about sleep. Mostly they’re all talking about how little they get. “Sleep is the new sex,” etc etc.

There’s also a lot of media attention because it’s World Sleep Day.

In an earlier blog post I argued that sleep is a feminist issue. Women get less sleep than men, even though there’s some evidence we actually need more. Why do we get less sleep? The answers are sadly familiar. They are the same reasons women also get less time for sports and other leisure activities. Women as a group shoulder a greater percentage of dependent care responsibilities and housework. It’s part of the larger picture of the unfair division of work in the home. Something had to give and that thing is sleep.

Being well rested it turns out tracks power and privilege. Surprised? I’m not really.

Men, on balance, get more sleep than women, on balance. (Of course some women get lots of sleep and some men get nearly none. It’s the big picture we’re talking about here.) But sex isn’t the only relevant factor when it comes to power and privilege. In the case of sleep it may not even be the most important one. Race and income matter too. Here’s a report on sleep and the numbers.

A study of the sleep characteristics of 669 middle-aged adults found that people sleep much less than they should, and even less than they think. Published in the July issue in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the study also found that blacks sleep less than whites, men sleep less than women, and the poor sleep less than the wealthy.

It’s not just a little bit less sleep either. Black Americans get a lot less sleep than white Americans. In fact, the difference in sleep quantity between the two groups may be enough to explain the difference in life expectancy between the two groups.

“The racial inequalities in the US are stark, but none are more damaging than the health gap between blacks and whites. On average, blacks die at a significantly younger age than whites.”

Here is a recent report on sleep differences between black and white Americans, Nobody Sleeps Better Than White People, Says Study

Thursday we learned something truly astonishing: White people, unburdened by racism, sleep pretty damn well.

According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 65 percent of Americans polled said they usually get at least seven hours of sleep per night, the benchmark recommendation. It’s self-reported data, not confirmed with any kind of tracking, but it’s fairly consistent with other estimates, the CDC says.

When the responses were broken down by race, they found that non-Hispanic whites had the highest rate of healthy sleep duration, at 66.8 percent. Close to 66 percent of Hispanics got seven-plus hours, as did 62.5 percent of Asians and 59.6 percent of Native Americans. Black people were at 54.2 percent, and multiracial people were at the bottom, with 53.6 percent. Overall, people who were employed and college-educated slept better, too.

Of course, most the media images of the underslept North American worker are of white, professional people. It’s reminding me of all the studies on stress which typically make their way into the media with images of men in suits attached. Stress is pictured as a disease of over achievers.


But the reality is quite different. Jobs that come without a lot of control are actually much more stressful. I’m reminded of my term serving as head of my academic department. Everyone asked if I found it stressful. The truth was that being in charge was much less stressful than being a regular colleague.

When I was a regular colleague I worried about decisions the Department Chair might make. When I was Chair, I didn’t worry about that all.

So as with stress, so goes sleep. It’s not the over-achieving powerful people who suffer the most. When it comes to sleep, black women get less sleep than white women and black men. It’s all about intersectionality. What’s that?

From the Geek Feminist Wiki, “Intersectionality is a concept often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another.”

See also:

The Racial Inequality of Sleep

How Well You Sleep May Hinge on Race


8 thoughts on “Sleep and social privilege, or why rich white people like me should stop whining about how tired we all are

  1. I wonder how to study this with disability in the mix, considering that certain illnesses (disabilities) change the amount of sleep an individual needs. Making it harder to make any generalizations based simply on quantity.

  2. You make good points about intersectionality, but why did you have to use such a nasty headline? Sleep deprivation is real. How is telling white people to stop whining going to help black people, or the poor? Aren’t we all in this together, trying to change an exploitative system?

  3. I never quite connected between lack of sleep and race/social class.

    The message I read here, is that some of us worry about certain things that others worry alot less about or don’t even worry at all. I’m privileged to earn a decent salary and not worry I will get thrown out of my home. We may have to put our anxieties within a broader perspective to get better sleep.

    In the mental health matters, certain factors may arise that affect how person asserts their self- identity in terms of realizing all their natural gifts/skills vs. societal expectations/stereotyping and how that might eat away without doing something about self-doubt/anger/frustration.

    On a totally different note, we could go on about sleep deprivation for parents of very young children vs. those of us who don’t have any children.

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