The Importance of Being Unsettled: Deeply, Permanently Unsettled

Once upon a time, I lived with my husband in a country called Eritrea. In case you haven’t heard of it, it is a country that is often referred to by the nickname “The North Korea of Africa.” While this name is highly problematic in many, many ways, the fact that no other African country has earned this nickname, gives you just a bit of a sense of the kind of place it is. Eritrea, a country of approximately 5-7 million people, has contributed a disproportionately large portion of the millions of people who have fled across the Mediterranean into Europe. Conditions in Eritrea are so bad that Eritreans are willing to risk torture, kidnapping, trafficking, slavery, drowning, dying of hunger or thirst in the desert, and winding up in detention indefinitely in another country. They are fleeing a country where there is arbitrary detention, torture, endless, compulsory military service and a strict prohibition on political dissent of all kinds.

I lived in Eritrea off and on from 2000 to 2005. I lived there because the government would not allow my husband to leave the country. (In fact, they make it almost impossible for almost everyone to leave legally, another reason why Eritreans risk so much to leave the country.)

Summer 2002 was the first time I was in the country when my husband was abducted and detained by the government security apparatus in one of their routine mass round-ups. It had happened to him before. But it was a profound moment of horror for me when I realized exactly what the government was not only capable of, but was actually doing. When something that you know intellectually becomes visceral, embodied knowing, you will never be the same afterwards.

After that, any time he was late coming home (we did not have cell phones then) I panicked. In an act of tremendous love, he avoided being late, knowing how distressing it was. Once, he was accidentally locked into the school where he worked during the lunch break. For the hour and a half that it took him to find the guard, who was home eating lunch, to let him out, I was a sobbing wreck.

When we first came to the U.S. we were overwhelmed with a sense of freedom. It is hard to explain the feeling of weightlessness you feel when you know you have the freedom to move through your neighborhood, your city, your country, the world and you have not had that freedom. It is hard to explain the relief you feel when you believe you are no longer constantly monitored, scrutinized, stopped by security or the military or the police. It is hard to explain the blissful feeling of safety when you know you have the right to not be detained arbitrarily and you know no one will detain or harm you for no reason.

It took a few years to realize that that freedom was an illusion. It took incidents of white women crossing the street when my husband approached in our neighborhood. It took him being followed by security guards in stores. It took police cars slowing down when they passed him on the street in our neighborhood. It took police cars stopping in front of our house to watch him taking out the trash or cleaning out the garage. It took news story after story after story for it to hit me. What has changed?

When he leaves the house to run an errand, a clock starts ticking in my head. I know how long it should take him. If he’s not back when I think he should be, I give him a little grace period and then I’m texting: “U ok?”

This feeling is familiar. We lived with the weight of the possibility of the state acting with impunity and violence for so many years. It is only because of cell phones that I do not panic like I did the day he was locked into his school in Eritrea.

Let this sink in.

The experience of being married to a black man in the U.S.A. is akin to the feeling of living in a country dubbed (correctly or not) “the North Korea of Africa.”  Eritrea is a police/ military state. So is the U.S.A. The difference is that Eritrea is a police state for pretty much everyone and the U.S.A. is a police state for Black and brown people. This means that most white people have not known about it. This has been part of the problem.  This is the problem.

As the wife of a black man in America, I live with the same simmer of anxiety, the same constant buzz of worry-waiting-to-erupt-into-panic in the back of my mind. We worry about the possibility of police violence not because we have overactive imaginations, not because we are obsessed or paranoid or have conspiracy theories. We worry because this has happened. Because it happens. Because unarmed, non-threatening black men and boys and women and girls doing routine ordinary things are harassed, brutalized and murdered. Again and again and again and again and again.

So, when we moved here from Eritrea, why did it take so long to admit that we are living in a police state? Was it because we were in a sort of bliss to be living in a “free” country? Was it because I’m white and even the most enlightened white people are thick headed and stubborn as we cling to our illusions of how the world is?

I think it was all of the above and also because we want to believe, we want so desperately to believe in the benevolence of the government and, specifically, its security apparatus. We want desperately to believe that the police and the military have our back. We want to believe this so desperately that we invent all kinds of convoluted stories and we get in all kinds of stupid arguments that defy the evidence that is staring us in the face.

The late anthropologist Begoña Aretxaga (writing about Northern Ireland) describes this as the “maddening state.”  We (and by we here I mean the elite caste: propertied people, white people: the ones that the security apparatus was designed to defend) are so deeply infected with belief that the state is benevolent and is on our side that we cannot fathom that it might not be. Even when the veil is lifted from our eyes and we see, we still refuse to see it. The maddening state is what happens when we see the evidence, but we refuse to know the truth. It can literally drive us crazy.

As peaceful protestors flood our streets, the response of the security apparatus has been violent. It is extreme. We’ve seen the videos. Some of you were there. It is exposing itself for what it is. Violent. It is fighting back against change.

The maddening state is deeply unsettling. And it should be. There is no way to relax in the midst of this. People who have been the victims and the potential victims of state violence have been more than unsettled for a long time—they are traumatized. But for the rest of us, one of the great gifts—possibilities—of this moment in history is its capacity to make ALL of us feel unsettled.

Feeling unsettled drives some people out to the streets (thank you!) It drives some people to wake up and recognize their own ignorance and want to learn more (an important process). It makes some people make phone calls and write letters (anyone with time should do this). It should drive us (white people) all to ask deeper questions about what makes us feel safe and realize that the real WE (all of us) are NOT safe.

Feeling profoundly unsettled is about becoming uncomfortable with comfort, insecure in security. It is an echo of a whisper of the trauma that victims and potential victims of the police state violence feel. It is kind of awakening. It is a place from which profound change comes. It is a gift. Feel unsettled. Embrace it. And then do something. And don’t go back. Be changed. Be change.




3 thoughts on “The Importance of Being Unsettled: Deeply, Permanently Unsettled

  1. Thank you Jen for writing these important and illuminating words, and for sharing them with all of us white people in the US who have only recently begun to personally experience the unsettled and terrified reality of living in a police state that does not protect freedom for all of us.


  2. Thank you for the clear statement of reality. These are troubling and anxious times – maddening in may ways. We need to find the real normal and make it real, supportive, transparent and equal. #Blacklivesmatter


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