Skip navigation

An idea that has been at the forefront of my thinking of late is of the strangeness of bedfellows: some

By Paul Robinson (New Image, Self made) [LGPL (,

people are in bed together and don’t realize it, others are in bed together and probably shouldn’t be, and still others are could or should be in bed together but aren’t—in short, the bedfellows idea helps make sense of why it is that typical modes of identity-politics organizing don’t really work.

To begin with those who have radically different commitments but operate from and support the same premises—those who are in bed together and don’t realize it—the connections are surprising. In his 2003 book Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique Roderick Ferguson usefully points out the ways in which “the discourse of black matriarchy” brought together very different groups as, “in addition to seducing black nationalists, that discourse facilitated a conservative blockade of social welfare policy in the United States” (p 124).

This is to say that the Black Panthers operated from a position that, like the so-called Moynihan Report (Officially called The Negro Family: The Case for National Action and available here), saw racism as emasculating and figured its correction as revolving around seizing manly agency, and this stance made them complicit with “U. S. nationalism, cultural nationalism, and the civil rights movement”—people they would never have though themselves like—due to their common “beliefs in heteropatriarchal discourses and practices”(Ferguson, 2003, pp. 115, 113).

Moreover, the black matriarchy discourse construction of the African American family as not only pathological but incompatible with achievement in the American system justified welfare reformers’ refusal to “sanction” it by financially supporting said matriarchs, thus making the Black Panthers in a sense also complicit with neoconservatism (Ferguson, 2003, pp. 124-5).

Similarly, Andrea Smith, in her Native Americans and the Christian Right: The Gendered Politics of Unlikely Alliances (2008) points out the ways in which leftist causes often appeal to the same values as rightist premises—for example, “choice” in the case of abortion presumes universalized choosing subjects just as the conservative personal responsibility ethos does (p. 241).

Moreover, though Clinton was generally perceived as a pro-choice president, Smith  notes that the welfare reforms passed during his presidency, in increasing pressure on poor women of color not to have children, acted to restrict reproductive freedom in much the same way (though the opposite direction) as the pro-life camp seeks ton (p. 243).

In this way, race-based nationalism or choice-based reproductive rights organizing, in taking on only a piece of the structure, fundamentally misregognizes the mutual constitution of the whole and renders one’s stated goals unachievable.

Alternately, some groups think they’re in bed together but aren’t, assuming commonality where in fact it does not inherently or transparently exist. Smith notes that “Native identity is itself a form of coalition politics” (p. 204), which illustrates the ways in which identity-political groups—in general, though some more than others as this example shows—have to elide intragroup difference so that the particular organizational principle becomes the defining feature.

That is, not every member has the same interests, and particularly there are differences in resources and what are the most pressing issues between subgroups, as Smith demonstrates with the difference between urban Indians and those who live on the reservation ( 209).

Similarly, the Combahee River Collective Statement (1981) traces out the ways in which feminist organizing assumed the primacy of gender and excluded race and Black nationalist organizing assumed the primacy of race and excluded gender; in this, each group assumed that Black feminists would join them because of their stake in the issue it prioritized, disregarding as irrelevant (or at least of lesser importance) other issues of vital interest to African American women.

In this way, it is clear that, as Smith argues, we cannot assume who our allies are in the way that typical organizing has traditionally tended to do (pp. 202, 252-3).

However, Smith also notes that we should not assume who our allies are not; the third category of strangeness in bedfellows comprises groups who could or should be in bed together but can’t see it because of how they conceive of what constitutes commonality with their cause.

Thus, Ferguson clearly articulates the links between “the devaluation of African American labor” and globalization (p. 135), showing how African Americans and anticapitalist activism have a stake in the same issues, yet in practice this tends to be obscured by perceiving race and capital as separate systems. Similarly,

pathologizing women of color immigrants as wild reproducers [ . . . ] became a way of justifying cuts to public spending and obscuring the ways in which the United States needed immigrant labor. The theory of black matriarchy, in other words, helped to generate discourses about other nonheteronormative racial formations, legitimating the exploitation of nonwhite labor and devastating the lives of poor and working-class communities of color” (Ferguson, p. 136).

These different nonwhite labor populations, then, have a common stake in contesting heteronormativity, yet are frequently at odds with one another due to operating with a race-based understanding of oppression—as in, for example, Black vs. Asian tensions demonstrated in Los Angeles in the early 1990s and elsewhere.

“The key to developing a mass movement,” Smith contends, “is to convince people to exchange their pursuit of short-term interests (such as the maintenance of their white-skinned, economic status or gender privileges) for their long-term interest in creating a world based on social equality and justice for all” (p. 253).

This is to radically rethink who our bedfellows are, to move beyond organizing around identity-based categories (or, at least, essentialist understandings of them) to frame issues in ways that pull people across traditional boundaries—racial, gender, economic, or ideological.

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] I’ve written before about Ferguson’s exposing of strange bedfellows around the discourse of “b…; he argues that black nationalists and cultural conservatives—who in virtually every other way were antithetical—both pointed to this as the problem at the root of poverty and other social ills in African-American communities. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *