Op-Ed: Sleeping in public is taboo. Unless you’re young, white and privileged

(Jamie Grill/Getty Images/Blend Images)

When Yale graduate student Lolade Siyonbola dozed off in a common room of her dormitory during a late-night paper-writing session, she had no idea what her nap would lead to. Another student, perhaps assuming that Siyonbola was an intruder or disturbed at the sight of a black person sleeping in plain view (or both), turned on the lights and told her, “You’re not supposed to be sleeping here. I’m going to call the police.” When the police came, they subjected Siyonbola to an excruciating 17-minute interrogation, captured on Siyonbola’s live Facebook feed.

Siyonbola’s ordeal adds napping to the lengthy list of mundane activities for which black people have recently been targeted by white people: sitting in a Starbucks, playing golf, checking out of an Airbnb. But it is also an opportunity to think about our society’s unspoken taboo against public sleeping, and the consequences for different groups when breaking that taboo.

Writing in 1939, the sociologist Norbert Elias described sleeping — like other bodily functions such as blowing one’s nose or evacuating waste — as an activity that Europeans of the 18th and 19th centuries decided must be undertaken in private in a “civilized” society. Historian Sasha Handley has recently shown that around this time, middle-class homes began to feature a novel architectural arrangement: the bedroom. Dozing in public increasingly became an affront to refined sensibilities, a reminder of the body’s basic functions that were supposed to be tidily managed behind closed doors.

Accordingly, public sleeping came to be associated with indecency, vagrancy, lack of willpower, moral or economic failure. George Orwell’s 1933 “Down and Out in Paris and London,” for instance, portrayed tramping as an endlessly exhausting search for sleep — on park benches, in noisy and dangerous lodging houses, by the side of the road. There, you could be kicked by police, robbed by thieves, molested or simply assaulted by rough conditions.


In our own times, rough sleeping inspires municipal efforts to sweep poor people’s troublesome needs out of view. We see danger in the vulnerable and defenseless sleepers, more than in the conditions they face. In 2014 the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty reported that 34% of 187 American cities had laws banning camping in public; 43% prohibited sleeping in vehicles; and 53% banned sitting or lying down in certain public places.

The image of young lovers sprawled out in a public park, asleep in each others’ embrace, conjures idyllic romance.

For the more socially advantaged, loopholes exist: Under certain circumstances, public sleeping is tolerated if it appears to be a choice rather than a need. Sleeping on a plane or commuter train seems like a sensible way to store up energy for business or to mitigate jet lag. The image of young lovers sprawled out in a public park, asleep in each others’ embrace, conjures idyllic romance. But as soon as public spaces become associated with too much sleeping, or the wrong people sleeping, conflict ensues.

This issue has beset public libraries, whose quiet spaces and comfortable chairs have made them attractive resting places for homeless people. Many libraries in urban centers have cracked down, prohibiting sleeping. Yet such rules may be enforced selectively. Naomi Fogerty, a librarian in suburban Seattle, told me that staffers at her institution used to rouse sleepers who appeared to be homeless, but someone who looked like a tired student wouldn’t be bothered.


Siyanbola could hardly have imagined herself entering into the ranks of outcaste sleepers. Elite, private schools such as Yale often winkingly acknowledge students’ late nights when they provide special spaces for napping on campus: The Yale Chaplain’s Office, for instance, describes its lounge as “a welcoming place to study, relax, or take a nap by the fireplace.” In contrast, black people’s exhaustion has long been viewed by whites as an indication of laziness or unruliness — a sign that they were in need of more discipline and social regulation, rather than comfort and seclusion. The complainant who roused Siyambola did not see a student, but a black body whose needs were inappropriately attended to in public.

What happened to Siyanbola was outrageous, but it lasted less than an hour and resulted in her returning to her dorm room. The campus police may have prolonged the incident more than it deserved, but they also admonished the woman who made the call. Siyanbola’s fellow students rallied to support her. Still her story tells us that no matter how far up the ladder dark-skinned people have climbed, and no matter how grueling the job of climbing it, their weariness is liable to be viewed with suspicion. If home is where we go to sleep, then she caught a glimpse, for a frightening moment at least, of what it is to be homeless.

Benjamin Reiss is a professor and chair of the English department at Emory University. He is the author of “Wild Nights, How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World.”


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