The New Black American Goal: To Get Some of That Good White Woman Sleep Every Night


It’s long been a well known fact that sleep is perhaps the most important health factor in our lives. So what happens when an entire group of people are getting less sleep and poorer quality sleep because of their race?

That’s what is happening to black Americans, according to a number of studies conducted by scientists. Black people in this country get less sleep than every other race, while white people get the most sleep and the best sleep, according to two fascinating new studies presented this summer at the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, held in Boston.

And it’s not just adults—studies have shown that black kids get less sleep than white kids and are less likely to have a sleep routine, which then carries over into their adulthood.

In one of the studies presented at the Boston conference, white participants from the Chicago area were found to get an average of 7.4 hours of sleep per night, while Hispanics and Asians averaged 6.9 hours and blacks 6.8 hours. In addition, sleep quality—which the study defined as ease in falling asleep and length of uninterrupted sleep—was also higher for whites than for blacks.

While socioeconomics play a role in the quality of sleep people get—the safety and quiet of your neighborhood, the hours and shifts you put in at the job, your weight and your diet all have an effect—researchers have found that even when they control for socioeconomic factors, the differences remain. For example, a 2005 study adjusted for education, income and employment status and found that black men still slept 82 minutes less per night than white women, who slept better than anybody in the study.

Just think about that. Even when scientists took money and education and employment status out of the equation, black men were still getting an hour and a half less sleep per night than white women. The implications of such findings are profound, with possible connections to more health problems in the African American community—obesity, diabetes, heart problems—and even less productivity and poorer school performance.

“When people aren’t sleeping as well during the night, they aren’t as productive during the day, and they’re not as healthy,” Dr. Mercedes R. Carnethon, associate professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, told the New York Times. “It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.”

But are we talking biological differences or just people living in different circumstances? In other words, this is the age-old question: nature or nurture?

“We’re not at a point where we can say for certain is it nature versus nurture, is it race or is it socioeconomics,” said Dr. Michael A. Grandner, a research associate with the Center for Sleep and Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania. But when it comes to sleep, “there is a unique factor of race we’re still trying to understand.”

Researchers believe the magic bullet might be stress, which is one thing they can’t really tease out in a lab or on a questionnaire. Stress always seems to pop up when we’re talking health and African Americans. Why do black people have more stress than everybody else? Hmm. Perhaps racism is still alive and well in America?

“We had no way to control for stress, and there are social stresses an African-American man might feel that a white man with the same income and education level wouldn’t,” said Dr. Kristen Knutson, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago and an author of the study.

“People who feel they have control over their lives were able to feel secure at night, go to sleep, sleep well, and wake up well in the morning and do it all over again,” said Dr. Lauren Hale, associate professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University on Long Island, referring to a study she conducted in 2009. “That’s part of the cycle not just for blacks and minorities, but other disadvantaged populations.”

There are other fascinating connections that researchers have found that are specific to race and gender. For Hispanic men, being divorced or widowed was particularly detrimental to their sleep, while never being married was more likely to take a toll on the sleep of Asian men. For Asian women, a lack of education was more likely to lead to sleep problems than similarly educated white women. And men of all races who were in relationships slept better than single men, regardless of relationship quality; for women, the quality of the relationship was more likely to affect sleep.

“There’s an effect of socioeconomics,” said Dr. Grandner, a lead author of the study, “but it’s not really the economic. It’s more about the socio.”

And then there are the kids. According to a 2010 study conducted by Dr. Hale for the National Institutes of Health, black and Hispanic children in America are far less likely to have regularly enforced bedtimes than white children. White children were also more likely to have “language-based” bedtime routines — those that involve reading or storytelling — both of which are associated with a wide range of cognitive and behavioral advantages.

These are routines that the body becomes accustomed to, that continue later in life.

“If routines are absent, especially these language-based routines, then children may be missing out on opportunities to develop and sleep optimally,” Hale said.

So while it may be too late for us African American adults to get some of that good, sweet, wonderful white woman sleep, we might be able to help our kids out later in life.

Put their behinds to bed at a reasonable hour every night! I know they doth protest loudly. Mine certainly do. But you are doing them a world of good. And while you’re at it, read the little buggers a book or two.


1. We Have to Protect Our Children from Stress
2. A Fathers Painful Reality: It Takes a Village to Protect Our Daughters

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. Thanks for pointing out this article. I think we so overlook sleep in this country, to our detriment. Thinking about the health inequities of it, I like your concrete suggestions for working to overcome that.

  2. Nick I am so glad that you ended the blog the way you did. Because I know, our family included that we do not inforce those bedtimes. My daughter works until 11PM and does not get home sometimes until about 11:15-11:30PM. And “me” grandma have not read a bedtime story and inforce his bed time. So some of the responsibility is on us as black people to push bed time. I just thank you for this information because now I am armed with new information that may affect my grandson and will definitely do better in getting him to bed sooner rather than later.

  3. Thanks for this information. I’ve become more strict with bedtime routines and has made a world of a difference in our home.

  4. I can attest that sleep-training when they are babies makes an impact on good sleep habits when they are in their teens. My kids may not always go to sleep when they should, but they recognize when they are tired and that getting good sleep is a major plus. I’ve had my kids apologize for snapping at me or giving me attitude on a number of occasions with the explanation, “I’m sorry, Mom … I’m just really tired.” For me, that’s a legitimate reason, not just an excuse, and I’ve had to say the same to them, sometimes, too! We *all* need to get good sleep. Not always easy to do, but definitely a good goal to have.

  5. I’m glad you wrote this article. What’s frustrating to me is that we often dismiss sleep needs. I put my kids to bed between 8 and 8:30 when they were in preschool and elementary school. My mother in law thinks I’m crazy. “Why are you putting them to bed so early?!” She doesn’t understand that children need more sleep than adults. She also doesn’t understand that the reason she falls asleep as soon as she sits down no matter the time of day or night is because she is sleep deprived. Going to sleep after 11:30 and waking up at 5:30 all the time because you are overcommitted with church activities will slowly kill you. But I’m the crazy one because I believe in proper sleep habits! Ok..rant is over. 🙂

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