Chloé Valdary had an unusual childhood. She grew up in a Christian family, but one that celebrated Jewish holy days. She was raised in New Orleans, a city dominated by Catholicism and its symbols, but her church was anti-Catholic. She's black, but her first steps into identity politics and activism were in opposition to antisemitism. And even with her religious upbringing, it was something an agnostic professor said that provoked her eureka moment.
So it's perhaps unsurprising that her approach to anti-racism is different from that of best-selling leftist consultants such as Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo. Instead of pushing people to feel guilty and complicit in everything from minor slights to systemic racism in workplace trainings, Valdary's company, Theory of Enchantment, wants participants of every background to learn to be more curious about and compassionate toward those who are different from them. "This attempt to correct injustice is laudable," she wrote last year in USA Today of the protests over the police killing of George Floyd that erupted across the country, "but the work of anti-racism must be rooted in the moral ethic of love and acknowledge the profound sacredness of human beings."
Valdary uses popular culture to teach about age-old ideas. Unsurprisingly, many people seem to prefer her positive curriculum over ones that insist they feel shame for having been born and raised a certain race. Valdary is frequently asked to speak at universities and corporations. In July, she spoke with Reason's Nick Gillespie via Zoom about the problems with most modern "diversity, equity, and inclusion" programs and why she thinks her alternative stands a better chance of breaking down barriers.
Reason: What's the elevator pitch for Theory of Enchantment?
Chloé Valdary: Theory of Enchantment is a startup. It's my company, and we teach anti-racism in the corporate boardroom and beyond. We have a very specific approach to this particular practice that combines popular culture, the arts, with a kind of mindfulness understanding of how to fight against and combat prejudice and bigotry.
What is the landscape in corporate offices? Is racism afoot? Is it like a wildfire? Is it a muted smoldering? In other words: How bad is the problem that you're talking about?
This is actually a challenging question for me. Because on one level, it's not as if companies are being bombarded with the spirit of Jim Crow, right? That's not what we're talking about here. And to that point, as I'm sure you know, there's been a giant proliferation of diversity and inclusion programs over the past year and a half, due to some of the events of last year.
One would assume that because of that proliferation, there's actually not much prejudice in the workplace. But the problem is that because a lot of the trainings that are super popular today are in some ways creating results that end up promoting prejudice, you have this byproduct effect where people are being inundated with an approach to anti-racism that creates the likelihood of more prejudice, not less.
Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo are probably the two best-known advocates of that approach, where every situation is seen as fraught with a massive amount of unacknowledged racism. And the job of facilitators is to come into, say, National Public Radio's headquarters and help people there realize that they're racist. But you're saying that approach is part of the problem.
Yes, because it's based upon a couple of things that are problematic. If you believe that anything and everything is white supremacy, for example—as it seems to me especially individuals like Robin DiAngelo believe—then, ironically, you are sort of claiming that white supremacy is this all-powerful, all-pervasive thing. You're actually accepting a premise that white supremacists professed. In doing so, you sort of perpetuate this belief, or stereotype, that people of color are helpless victims and will always be helpless victims. That creates a caricaturing of both black and white people, which actually just leads to more prejudice in the workplace, as opposed to getting rid of it.
That has a cultural effect in the long run, because people are essentially saying to themselves, "I want to be a good person, I want to do the right thing, this is super in vogue, and this is what I'm being told makes me a good person." So it just metastasizes.
Let's say I run a corporation and I want to bring you in to facilitate better relationships across my staff. How do you proceed? What does the Theory of Enchantment look like?
You could have us come in and do an actual day-long workshop, just to pilot a program to see if you really agree with or like our approach. Or you could enroll in our self-paced program, which anyone can enroll in at any time.
Those are structured differently. But both of them are based upon the three foundational principles of the Theory of Enchantment, which are: Treat people like human beings, not political abstractions. Criticize to uplift and empower, never to tear down or destroy. And try to root everything you do in loving compassion. So the objective of both of those approaches is to get the practitioner embodying those three practices.
What are the exercises that lead to that?
In our workshop, for example, when we talk about treating people like human beings, not political abstractions, we then have to unpack what it means to be a human being. Which is quite inexhaustible, actually, and quite vast, which is part of the beauty and the wonder of what it means to be human. So people go through different practices that have to do with vulnerability, that have to do with exploring tools like stoicism, which helps us as a species deal with things like our need for control.
The reason for this is very simple. When we talk about the concept of supremacy, supremacy is not just a racial concept. If someone cuts me off in the street and I begin to see that person as less than me, to see myself as greater than or better than that person, I have entered into a supremacist superiority complex, right? And when I'm doing that, I'm basically acting out of insecurity. I'm using supremacy as a defensive mechanism, because I am operating out of a sense of lack. So all the exercises in the Theory of Enchantment help the practitioners develop tools to deal with their insecurities—because all human beings have insecurities, unless you're the Buddha or something—so you'll be less likely to overcompensate for them by being attracted to supremacist ways of thinking. And again, it's not strictly racial. It's a fundamentally base human instinct that we get looped in as a defensive mechanism.
One of the things I found really interesting is your use of literature and popular culture. You use music, books, movies, etc., to explore these themes. Can you talk about that? It seems like a really good way to break down abstractions, because you're talking about a common text. But then it also seems like the minute you start talking about a particular song (and you use some hip-hop stuff) or particular writing (you use a lot of pieces by James Baldwin), you're immediately going to start fighting with each other. What are some of the specific texts you use, and how does that play out?
I love the arts. I've always been drawn to the arts. I love literature. I love dance. I love music. And the reason we use these as tools to give people the sense of an affordance of a common humanity is because, even though we're living at a time where it's politically in vogue to caricature people and to reduce people, the task of the arts is to give expression to the full range of the human condition. This is something that one learns, for example, when going to acting school and being in theater.
We use, as you said, sources from hip-hop. We use Kendrick Lamar. In our full self-paced training, we use songs by Lil Wayne. But it's a full range. So there's songs in there by John Mayer. There's literature in there by John Steinbeck. There's literature by Cheryl Strayed. There are snippets of Disney films that are used as prompts for exploration and identity discovery.
What's a sample snippet of a Disney film?
In our module on stoicism, we teach individuals how to assume the posture of sympathia, which is a great term that means "to look up." This corresponds with an idea in The Lion King, which is embedded in the song the "Circle of Life." The "Circle of Life" is arguably an incredibly stoic text, if you will. Because Simba has to learn how to mature from a young cub to an actual king. And in doing so, he has to learn certain principles which are stoic in nature, like taking the view from above and understanding the interconnectedness of all things. So this is how we sort of play with ancient wisdom that's hundreds or thousands of years old and have that be in conversation with contemporary art and contemporary stories.
I was an English major in college and beyond, and I would love the idea of taking time off from work to talk about Kendrick Lamar, or a Disney movie, or an essay or a short story by somebody like James Baldwin or John Steinbeck. I could also see a lot of people being like, "What the hell is this shit?" Are people open, in your experience, to working through their humanity?
The truth is that some people feel at this point there's no choice. Because we are so polarized as a community, as a nation, and we are so much at each others' throats, it seems, especially on social media. So this is meeting a demand and servicing a pain point that people are having in different sorts of avenues. To date, there's been no outbound sales strategy on the part of the company. In terms of getting customers, everything has been inbound. So I think that that's really a testament to the demand and to the pain points.
You look at some of the reports about insane corporate training sessions, where people are either figuratively or literally asked to wear a Chinese Cultural Revolution–style chalkboard saying, "I am a criminal," and forced to confess that they are racist, that they are sexist, that they are homophobic, that they're bad people. Where do you think that's coming from? And why do people—I guess this is an easy question—why do people search out your program rather than something that emphasizes that kind of stuff?
That last question is easier to answer, in the sense that people are looking for alternatives to programs that make them feel worthless. And this is important to point out because of the connection between insecurity and a supremacist superiority complex. It's actually a horrible idea, if you want to fight the impulse that we human beings have to feel better than others, it's a bad idea to make people so insecure. Because that is a driver of the need to feel better than others.
People are seeking out Theory of Enchantment because it's not just an alternative. It's also an incredibly rich humanistic experience. The overall goal is to really get people to come away from that experience with a renewed sense of joy and wonder that they have in relation to their lives and the lives of others, and to see themselves and others with the fullness of the complexity that we all possess. What that does is it means that you will not see the other as a threat. You will see the other as a source of curiosity and wonder.
When people talk about white supremacism in American history, there's no denying that the country was founded coincident with race-based slavery. And it was a slavery that made "innovations," such as the idea that if your mother was a slave, you will always be a slave. Reckoning with that is a legitimate and necessary process that every generation has to go through. So it's not that America is perfect, or anything close to that. But it also seems like, at a moment when things generally are getting better, suddenly people start insisting that white supremacy is even worse today than it was 50 or 100 years ago.
Well, we are sort of still going through a pandemic, right? The pandemic has unleashed, I think, not a meaning crisis but another wave in what has been a meaning crisis that has been confronting us as a nation for a long time. And I think that when you are in a liminal space such as a pandemic, where you don't have the same rituals that you may have had previously, your workspace is the same as your home space, you're not having graduation ceremonies anymore, you're not connecting physically with people anymore—that's an incredible strain on your life as a human being. That breeds insecurity, both in the material sense and in a sort of spiritual-psychological sense. And whenever there's insecurity, there is this probability that we as a species will become more likely to get into these adversarial modes of being as a defensive mechanism, to sort of grasp or hold on to something that makes us feel secure. So I think that what's happening is the same sort of code playing itself out within us.
You grew up in New Orleans. You went to the University of New Orleans. You have talked about how it was really at the college level that you became an activist. Could you kind of unspool what Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye calls "all that David Copperfield kind of crap"?
Well-stated. I'll try to sum it up.
Yes, I was born in New Orleans. I was born into a religious family, whose religious expression contained the seeds of both dogmatism and rebellion, which is an interesting combination. I grew up Christian, but I grew up observing mainstream Jewish festivals and holy days. So I grew up observing Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana.
Is this a large-scale sect such as Jehovah's Witness or Seventh-day Adventist? Or something like that?
It's something like Seventh-day Adventist. Seventh-day Adventists go to church on Saturday, not Sunday. That's how I grew up. It was a very anti-Catholic church.
Well, New Orleans has a lot of Catholics, so they know what they're talking about.
It's true cultural domination. But what that gave me was a sense of affinity for Jewish culture and therefore an allergy to antisemitism, which really culminated in 2012, when antisemitism was resurfacing in France. There were a few terror attacks against the Jewish community, and I thought to myself, how is this still a thing in the 21st century? So I got involved in the fight against antisemitism. I had a pro-Israel student club at the University of New Orleans. I hosted events with friends from Tulane University where we would bring in lecturers and things of that nature.
But I shifted in my outlook when I stopped reading polemical books about, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and started reading Israeli literature—in particular Amos Oz. That really changed my attitude. It changed my posture. But it didn't change it overnight. It was the beginning of a change. The literary approach to humanity is very different from the political adversarial approach, where the objective is to defeat your opponent. The literary approach is able to hold space for all of the complexities and the nuances of the human condition. And I find it to be a much more sophisticated, more mature approach. And that orientation was deeply instrumental in the development of the Theory of Enchantment. So that was happening near my senior year in college, that shift.
Also, something pivotal that happened was I took a class called "Anthropology of Magic, Religion, and Witchcraft" with this professor who I was prejudiced towards in my mind. I assumed because she was agnostic (and I was very dogmatic at the time) that she would know nothing, and not only would know nothing about religion but would condescend to the religious.
She had us watch a film, Jesus Camp, which portrays evangelicals who send their kids to a camp, I think where they're taught to speak in tongues or what have you. It doesn't really [portray] the evangelical community in a positive light. The next day I go to school and there's a student, a classmate who's an atheist, and she starts railing against this community. And my agnostic professor, who I have prejudged, and who I have assumed will say one thing and act in one way, essentially starts to defend the community. She models a literary posturing, which is: If you are not capable of wrestling with all the things that we as human beings gravitate towards—even mistakenly, even in a incorrect way—but if you're not able to grapple with the source of that, which is ultimately a need for meaning and belonging, then you aren't really understanding the purpose of this course.
Her saying that created an existential crisis in my life. Because I had put her into this box, and the boxes were insufficient, which meant my entire worldview was crumbling.
After I graduated, I moved to New York and got a job at The Wall Street Journal and worked closely with Bret Stephens. That is where I began to work on a thesis that was the catalyst for Theory of Enchantment. And that is when I began to study pop culture, in particular, and the arts: as a means to try to pull out this framework that would teach people how to be able to grasp their own complexity and the complexity of the other in a spirit of curiosity, wonder, and joy, as opposed to that adversarial orientation.