Chloé Valdary had an unusual childhood. While she was raised by a Christian family that also celebrated Jewish holy holidays, she grew up as a Jew. New Orleans was her home, and she was raised Catholic. However, her Catholic church is anti-Catholic. Although she is black, her first attempts at activism and identity politics was in opposition to antisemitism. Even though she was raised religiously, her eureka moment came from an agnostic professor who said something to her.
Therefore, it is not surprising her anti-racism approach differs from those of Robin DiAngelo or IbramX. Kendi. Theory of Enchantment’s Valdary wants people not to feel guilty or complicit in minor offenses and systemic racism in workplace trainings. Instead, she encourages participants from all backgrounds to become more curious and compassionate towards those different than them. Last year, she stated that her attempt to address injustice was admirable. 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 as a way to share age-old concepts. Many people prefer Valdary’s positive approach to teaching than those that make them feel ashamed for being born or raised in a particular race. Valdary has been asked many times to address universities and companies. She spoke to a group of students in July. ReasonNick Gillespie talks via Zoom with Nick about the shortcomings of modern “diversity equity and inclusion” programs. She also explains why she believes her alternative offers a better chance to break down barriers.
ReasonTheory of Enchantment: What is the elevator pitch?
Chloé Valdary: Theory of Enchantment is a startup. My company, it’s anti-racism education in corporate boardsrooms and other settings. This particular approach combines pop culture and the arts with a mindfulness understanding about how to combat and defeat prejudice and bigotry.
Is there a landscape for corporate offices? Is racism afoot? It is like a wildfire. Are you seeing a muted simmering? Or, in other words, how serious is this problem?
For me, this is a very difficult question. On one level it doesn’t seem like businesses are being bombarded in Jim Crow-esque spirit. We are not referring to that. As I am sure you all know, the last year has seen a huge increase in diversity and inclusion programs due to the events that took place.
It would be easy to assume there isn’t much prejudice at work because of this proliferation. Problem is that many popular trainings today promote prejudice. This leads to a side effect of people being bombarded with anti-racism strategies that encourage more bias.
Robin DiAngelo, and Ibram Kennedi are the best-known proponents of this approach. In that every situation is seen in terms of a large amount of unacknowledged prejudice, Robin DiAngelo is probably the most prominent. Facilitators have the responsibility of helping people realize their racism by going into National Public Radio headquarters. This is one of the problems.
Because it is based on a few things that can be 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. In reality, you are accepting the premise of white supremacy. This perpetuates the idea that people of color will be victims forever and are therefore helpless. This creates stereotyping and resentful behavior in both black and brown people.
This has an effect on the culture long-term because people say to themselves “I want be a good human being, I want do the right things, this is very trendy, and this what my society is telling me makes me a great person.” It just spreads.
Let’s assume I own a corporation. I would like to invite you into my company to build stronger relationships among my staff. What’s the best way to go about it? Is there a Theory of Enchantment?
We could come to your location and conduct a day-long workshop to test our program. You could also enroll in the self-paced course, which is available to anyone at any moment.
They are different. They are both based on three principles of Theory of Enchantment: Treat people like humans, and not as political abstractions. To empower and uplift, not to destroy or tear down, criticize. Also, try to be loving and compassionate in all you do. The goal of each approach is to have the practitioner practice these three practices.
Which exercises lead to this?
For example, in our workshop we discuss treating people as human beings and not just political abstractions. We then need to decode what it means for a person to be human. It is a vast and inexhaustible universe, but that is also part of the joy and wonder of being human. People go through various practices to deal with vulnerability. They also explore tools such as stoicism to help them manage things like their need to control.
This is because of one simple reason. If we are to talk about supremacy it is more than a racial notion. When someone cuts me in the street, and I start to view that person as lesser than myself, or to think that I am superior to that person, then I’ve entered into a supremacist superiority system. This is a sign that my insecurity drives me to do this. Because I feel a lack, I use supremacy to defend myself. 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. Again, this is not strictly racial. This is a basic human instinct and we are able to get looped into as a defense mechanism.
It was fascinating to see how you use literature and pop culture. To explore these themes, you use music and movies. Talk about this. This seems like a great way to dissect abstractions because it’s a common text. However, it seems as though you will soon start fighting each other if you get into a discussion about a song or writing. How do you interpret the different texts that you use?
Arts are what I am passionate about. The arts have always fascinated me. Literature is something I am passionate about. I love dance. I am a huge fan of music. These are tools that give people the feeling of shared humanity. Even though it is politically fashionable to minimize people or caricature them, the mission of the arts should be to express the whole human condition. It is something one can get from acting classes and performing in theatre.
As you mentioned, we use sources from hip hop. We use Kendrick Lamar. We use Lil Wayne songs in our self-paced full training. It’s not a complete range. John Mayer’s songs are also included. John Steinbeck wrote some of the literature. Cheryl Strayed has written some literature. You can find snippets from Disney movies that you can use as prompts to explore and discover your identity.
Here’s an example of a Disney movie.
We teach people how to take the position of stoicism in our module about stoicism sympathiaThe great word ‘to look up’ is the acronym ‘. It corresponds to an idea in The Lion KingThe song also includes the lyrics “The Message”, “Circle of Life.” If you’re looking for something incredibly spiritual, the “Circle of Life”, is it? Simba must learn to become a king from his youth. He must learn some principles that are spiritual in nature. These include taking the view of above and comprehending the interconnectedness between all things. We can then play with wisdom from hundreds and thousands of centuries ago, and bring it into conversation with current art and stories.
As an English major, in college and beyond I loved the idea of being able to spend some time with Kendrick Lamar or discussing a Disney movie or an essay by James Baldwin or John Steinbeck. It’s easy to see people thinking, “What is the heck?!” Is it possible to see people as open in your own experience to working with their humanity?
Some feel that they have no option but to choose. It seems that we have become so divided, both as a society and as a nation. We seem to be at each others throats especially via social media. It is meeting the demand of people and addressing their pain points through different avenues. The company currently has no outside sales strategy. All of the company’s efforts to acquire customers have been internal. That’s a testimony to both the need and 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. What do you think is the source of this? 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?
This last question is much easier because people seek alternatives to the programs that make their lives miserable. Because of the link between insecurity, supremacist superiority and this complex, it is crucial to highlight. This is a terrible idea. If you are trying to combat the human impulse to be better than other people, then it’s not a good idea to make them feel insecure. It’s a way to make people feel better.
Theory of Enchantment is not an option. People seek it out because they know that it can be a real alternative. The experience is also rich in humanistic meaning. That experience is meant to give people a new sense of joy, wonder, and understanding of themselves and other people. It means that the other person will no longer be viewed as a threat. The other person will be viewed as an opportunity for curiosity and wonder.
People often talk about American white supremacy, but it’s clear that slavery-based race was the reason for its founding. It was slavery that brought “innovations” such as the notion that, if your mother is a slave you’ll always be one. That is something that all generations must face. It’s not like America is perfect or even close. It also feels like people suddenly start to insist that white supremacy today is worse than 50 years ago or 100 years back, even though things are generally improving.
We are still experiencing a pandemic. It is not a new meaning crisis, but a wave of what has been an ongoing meaning crisis for the nation. 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. Insecurity is a sign that humans as a species are more inclined to adopt adversarial ways of being in order to protect ourselves and to hold onto something that gives us security. It seems like the same code is playing out in us.
New Orleans was where your family grew up. The University of New Orleans was where you went. It was at college that you were an activist. You could sort of unravel what Holden Caulfield was doing in Catcher in The Rye Is this “all the David Copperfield-type of crap?”
Very well stated. It’s a well-written article.
Yes. I was born here. My family was religious and my religious faith engendered both rebellion and dogmatism. While I was raised Christian, I also grew up following Jewish holy days and festivals. Also, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur were important to me growing up.
Are you referring to a larger-scale sect like Seventh-day Adventist or Jehovah’s Witness? Oder something similar?
It is something similar to Seventh-day Adventist. Seventh-day Adventists attend church every Saturday. It’s the way I grew up. It was an anti-Catholic Church.
New Orleans is home to many Catholics so they are well-versed in the subject.
True cultural dominance. What it gave me was an affinity for Jewish culture. It also made me allergic to antisemitism. That culminated in 2012 as antisemitism began to resurface in France. The Jewish community was the victim of a number of terror attacks. I wondered how this could still be happening in 21st-century France. The fight against antisemitism was something I became involved with. At the University of New Orleans, I was a member of a pro-Israel student group. With Tulane University friends, I organized events where lecturers would be invited to speak.
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. It really transformed my outlook. This changed my outlook. It didn’t make a huge difference overnight. This was only the start of a new era. This literary approach to humanity differs from that of the political adversarial approach where you aim to defeat your opponent. Literary approaches are able to accommodate all the details and nuances of humanity. This approach is much more refined and mature. That orientation was crucial in developing the Theory of Enchantment. This was my senior year of college.
It was also pivotal for me that I took the class “Anthropology of Magic, Religion, and Witchcraft” together with a professor whom I felt prejudiced towards. Because she was an agnostic, I thought she wouldn’t know anything about religion.
We were asked to watch a movie by her. Jesus CampThis movie depicts evangelicals sending their kids to a camp. It’s where they are taught how to speak in tongues, or whatever else. The truth is that it doesn’t. [portray]Positive images of the evangelical community. One day later, when I get to school, I see a fellow student who is an atheist and starts railing about this group. My agnostic professor who I had prejudged and assumed would say and do one thing, actually starts to defend this 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.
My life was in crisis after her words. She was in that box and I didn’t have enough. My whole worldview collapsed.
Following my graduation, I relocated to New York City and found a job. The Wall Street Journal and worked closely with Bret Stephens. It was here that I created the thesis that led to Theory of Enchantment. As a result, I became interested in pop culture in general and in the arts in order to find the framework that could help people understand themselves and others in a spirit that encourages curiosity, wonder and joy.
This interview has been edited in clarity and style. For a podcast version, subscribe to Nick Gillespie Interview: The Reason