Can Chloé Valdary Sell Skeptics on DEI?

Valdary’s Theory of Enchantment elicits unusual openness, trust, and engagement from ideologically diverse observers.

Chloe Valdary
Valdary (CC-BY-SA 4.0) / The Atlantic

Chloé Valdary is the founder of Theory of Enchantment, a diversity and resilience training company that the 27-year-old African American entrepreneur runs from Downtown Brooklyn. Its website lists clients including TikTok, WeWork, the Federal Aviation Administration, and Greenwich High School, and asks potential customers a loaded question: “Looking for an antiracism program that actually fights bigotry instead of spreading it?”

The diversity, equity, and inclusion industry is booming as corporations, government agencies, high schools, colleges, and nonprofit organizations clamor for its services. Advocates insist that formal instruction in anti-racism yields more inclusive, equitable institutions. Skeptics object to what they characterize as coerced indoctrination in esoteric theories, or charge that prominent consultants like Robin DiAngelo, author of the best-selling White Fragility, traffic in false and divisive racial stereotypes. Still others cite studies finding that diversity training sessions are actually counterproductive.

Valdary is unusual because she shares many critiques of the multibillion-dollar “DEI industrial complex,” as sardonic observers call it, even as she argues that her framework avoids the flaws of her competitors’. “We teach love and compassion,” her website insists. “Let us train your team.” What’s more, Valdary pledges, “We do not dehumanize, stereotype, or caricature anyone who seeks our services.” Can her Theory of Enchantment help bridge this chasm in the culture wars? Maybe so.

“My first response to any anti-racism course is disgust,” Mikhaila Peterson, the daughter of Jordan Peterson, told listeners in the preamble to a September podcast episode featuring Valdary. “They teach white people to be ashamed of being white. Sometimes they separate people by race and pit them against each other … The minimum these courses do is make people angry.” Valdary’s explanation of Theory of Enchantment didn’t exactly convert Peterson to the cause: “I still don’t think anti-racism courses are a good idea,” she said. But “if there are business owners out there that are mandated to provide anti-racism or anti-bias training, Chloé’s course is what I would recommend,” Peterson said. “She doesn’t come at you from a place of hatred … I believe she really wants to make the world a kinder place without tearing anyone down.”

Although it’s too soon to evaluate the proliferation of training sessions introduced after George Floyd’s death, I am persuaded by older research suggesting that DEI programs can do more harm than good––even granting that there is no universal definition of success––and I think I know one reason why. The political psychologist Karen Stenner has found that roughly a third of humans have an authoritarian predisposition—a kind of political personality—characterized by a fundamental discomfort with difference. Authoritarians tend to treat members of other racial groups best in contexts where they are presented as (or feel like, or appear to be) “one of us,” and with more hostility when race is seen (or identified) as a core attribute that differentiates “us” from “them.” The racial essentialism embedded in leading DEI frameworks fuels “us” and “them” thinking.

Valdary’s approach does not. Having interviewed her by phone and email, and having delved into her course material and the thinking behind it, I can confirm that her approach to anti-racism and inclusion really is substantively different from that of her better-known competitors. Theory of Enchantment elicits unusual openness, trust, and engagement from ideologically diverse observers, including many critics of more conventional DEI-training approaches.

Chloé Simone Valdary was raised in New Orleans, where she attended Langston Hughes Elementary School. “The education I received on race was grounded in a transcendent view of humanity which came specifically from an African-American literary tradition,” she reflected on Twitter in July. She read the poems of Maya Angelou; various Harlem Renaissance writers; and stories from formerly enslaved people, abolitionists, and civil-rights leaders. A curriculum featuring “the very best of our people’s power to express the tired struggles and abiding resilience of the human spirit” taught Valdary that past injustice in no way prevented her from shaping the future. “This freedom was sacrosanct, a product of our black experience and a rejection of any idea that tried to confine our being black to one particular label or stereotype,” she wrote in a Commentary essay. “Our ability to be anything—avant-garde artists or well-to-do investment bankers, charitable or devastating, complex or simple—was a rebellion against the old guard’s attempt to define us by any one experience.”

Her family belonged to the Seventh-Day Sabbatarian Christian Intercontinental Church of God, where the congregation worshipped on Saturdays, observed Old Testament holidays such as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, and did not celebrate Christmas. Growing up Christian without partaking in mainstream holidays “gave me an identity marked by paradox,” characterized by “the ambiguity of being both within and without a community,” she told me in an email correspondence. At times this made her feel ostracized, but it also sparked her curiosity. For example, “being taught that Christmas is derived from the ancient festival of Mithras can teach you to make shallow dichotomies between the pagan and the so-called pure,” she reflected, but it can also help you conclude that what matters most is the symbolic bringing of light into darkness that both the ancient pagan and modern Christian festivals suggest. “Both festivals essentially represent this same human yearning: in the darkest of days and times, in the dead of winter is when to look for the light.”

She told me she no longer identifies with the Church. “But some of its teachings taught me to question everything,” and out of that came “wonder” and a sense of  “transcendent oneness.”

In 2011 she enrolled at the University of New Orleans, where she majored in International Relations and studied diplomacy. After graduating in 2015, she reflected that although her academic field offered many frameworks for combatting conflict, it seldom addressed a related but conceptually distinct task: teaching people how to love. Wasn’t that a glaring deficiency? One of her heroes, Martin Luther King Jr., repeatedly stated in the last decade of his life that the end goal of his activism, even beyond equal rights for all people, was the creation of a “beloved community” rooted in redemptive agape, love. “It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends,” King said. “It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age.”

Valdary, nothing if not ambitious, decided she wanted to teach people to love like that. But how? She would study what people already love in hopes of reverse engineering the process––work she completed during a paid fellowship at The Wall Street Journal. She sought data in popular culture, identifying people and products that inspire quasi-religious devotion. Companies like Nike and Disney and artists like Beyoncé counted tens of millions of loyal fans. Did any common denominator explain their appeal? “All were creating content where we as the audience see ourselves and our potential reflected back to us,” she told me, arguing that with “Just Do It,” Nike was tapping into the human need for self-actualization; that almost every Disney movie incorporated Jungian archetypes and variations on the hero’s journey as metaphors for the human condition; and that Beyoncé’s iconography and lyrics like “Who run the world? Girls!” made her fans feel their potential reflected in her artistry.

Valdary wanted a name for this process of affecting others by helping them see their own potential. In 2016, as she completed what would become an 82-page paper on her findings, she read the 2011 book Enchantment by the Silicon Valley marketing specialist Guy Kawasaki, best known for his stint at Apple. He believes that traditional marketing and even outright manipulation are less effective than what he calls “the process of enchantment.” If you can enchant someone, you can bring about “a voluntary, enduring, and delightful change,” he argued. “By enlisting their own goals and desires, by being likable and trustworthy, and by framing a cause that others can embrace, you can change hearts, minds, and actions.”

Now Valdary had a name for her theory: the Theory of Enchantment. In her estimation, people in the process of enchantment can be taught, as they come to more fully appreciate their own potential, to love themselves––and people who have learned to love themselves can be taught to love their neighbors.

In 2018, after two years of delivering lectures on her framework in the U.S. and abroad, she saw that her Theory of Enchantment could be applied to efforts to manage diversity and fight racism within institutions, so she launched a business, targeting educational institutions and corporations. Three principles guide all of the coursework her company offers:

  1. Treat people like human beings, not political abstractions.
  2. Criticize to uplift and empower, never to tear down, never to destroy.
  3. Root everything you do in love and compassion.

The Theory of Enchantment course, which Valdary taught in person before the pandemic and lately offers remotely via Zoom, eschews newly ascendant social-justice concepts and academic literature in favor of philosophical texts, civil-rights-movement speeches, nonacademic anti-racist authors such as James Baldwin, and pop culture, including shoe commercials, scenes from films, and song lyrics. The course lasts up to six weeks, though Valdary offers shorter options. At first, she focuses on people’s relationships with themselves. “A person cannot love another human being or treat another human being with the dignity they deserve if they do not love themselves,” Valdary argued on Twitter in October, noting that Baldwin agreed in The Fire Next Time: “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this,” he wrote, “the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”

Valdary believes that the same logic applies to people of all races, and she never segregates her students, as some DEI courses do, because “we all deal with insecurities.” When humans handle insecurity poorly, she says, it fuels self-contempt––and overcompensation for self-contempt fuels extremist ideologies, including racism. She aims to teach the skills to develop self-worth, urging reflection on challenges we all share: mortality, imperfection, vulnerability, parental baggage. By making peace with the most trying aspects of the human condition, “you will be able to develop a capacity for empathy,” she wrote. “You will naturally want to create inclusive spaces, because the lens through which you see the world will be driven by openness, not by fear or cynicism.”

Achieving openness is hard, a lesson Valdary underscores with Kendrick Lamar lyrics: “I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA.” To thrive in spite of our flaws, we need to hone skills of self-mastery. She teaches Stoic philosophy, citing complex passages from original texts and endeavoring to make those ancient words come alive by putting them in dialogue with elements of pop culture, like The Lion King. “Concepts like sympathia—the idea that you are connected with everyone else around you—is precisely what the song ‘Circle of Life’ is about,” she told the Los Angeles Review of Books in December 2019.

Next, the course shifts focus from loving and improving oneself to cultivating empathy for others. Valdary uses Beauty and the Beast to illustrate the difference between monsters and men, and explore which responses to monstrous behavior make change most likely. “We use a great snippet from an interview Jay Z did, where he talks about how therapy helped him to see that when he was growing up in Brooklyn and someone said, in a threatening way, ‘What are you looking at?,’ they were coming from a place of insecurity and hurt, and didn’t want him to see their pain,” Valdary told me. “Once you understand that there’s a whole lot of baggage and complexity behind the facades that we project, you start to look for the depth of things, gain awareness of your own depth, and see the depth in others. We teach [about] Daryl Davis, the Black musician who successfully convinced multiple people to leave the KKK. We teach something from a show called The Redemption Project, where Van Jones went to San Quentin to arrange conversations between victims and offenders. It has nothing to do with race. The individuals are of the same racial background. But it’s a powerful example of redemption where people dig deep within their hearts to forgive people who have wronged them on an existential level.”

Valdary uses Ta-Nehisi Coates to teach the difference between criticism that edifies and criticism that exploits; cites Angelou in a lesson on how to observe value in others; and emphasizes the importance of love by drawing on King, Barack Obama, and analysis of the animated movie Moana’s lessons on loving others even when the feeling is not reciprocated.

Beyond the household names in her course, Valdary was influenced by Albert Murray, the musician, novelist, critic, and essayist––“easily one of the twentieth century’s most important aesthetic theorists of American culture,” the Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. declared in the foreword to the 50th-anniversary reissue of Murray’s essay collection The Omni-Americans. The book repeatedly objects to reducing Black and white Americans to a “folklore of white supremacy” and a “fakelore of black pathology,” arguing that adherents of those mutually reinforcing ideas neglect glaring evidence that all Americans are more alike than different.

“Murray argued that … there was no so-called American culture without the Negro American formal element and content in its marvelous blend, and no black American culture without its white American influences and form,” Gates concluded. “Murray stood for complexity … What he was saying is that there is no prescription for being black.”

As Murray himself put it, “Any fool can see that white people are not really white, and that black people are not black.” Such candor “can evoke fear in all Americans,” the writer Thomas Chatterton Williams observed, “because it implies that, should the truth ever be accepted, we are going to have to sacrifice something of ourselves and work at solidarity; we are going to have to find other, more challenging—­but also more gratifying!—foundations for belonging to each other.”

Valdary hopes to help achieve that solidarity, in part by critiquing those who she believes misconstrue the relationship between whiteness and Blackness and African Americans and America. In one passage in How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi, the academic, educator, and Atlantic contributor, presents U.S. history as a duel between racists and anti-racists, writing, “Before and after the Civil War, before and after civil rights, before and after the first Black presidency, the White consciousness duels. The White body defines the American body. The White body segregates the Black body from the American body. The White body instructs the Black body to assimilate into the American body. The White body rejects the Black body assimilating into the American body––and history and consciousness duel anew. The Black Body in turn experiences the same duel. The Black body is instructed to become the American body. The American body is the White body.” To which Valdary replied on Twitter: “BLACK CULTURE IS AS FOUNDATIONAL TO OUR SOCIETY AND IS AS AMERICAN AS APPLE PIE.”

As Valdary sees it, Kendi errs by treating racial groups as fixed across centuries. “White America is black America and vice versa,” she countered in another Twitter thread. “As Murray pointed out, there is no native born black American that is not white and no native born white American that is not also black. America is a composite. So a dichotomy in terms of skin color is just false. The better distinction to make here is, I think, between [African American] culture—which I’m defining as the culture developed by slaves and their descendants—and WASP culture.”

Anyone can be part of either culture regardless of skin color, she insists, and “even the two cultures have themselves overlapped. [African American] culture has historically been very Protestant, for example, but in its own distinct way.” There are “those who believe that the racial category to which they belong captures the essence of their lives,” she acknowledges, but argues that a racialized sense of self is externally constructed, and Valdary instead champions an internal locus of control that transcends immutable factors.

Whether or not love is in fact the key to transcending injustice, Theory of Enchantment strikes me as more likely to cause people to treat one another better than other diversity training for the simple reason that it rejects race essentialism, which alienates many, and centers love, which does not. Robin DiAngelo’s popular “white fragility” framework breaks the first rule of the Theory of Enchantment, Valdary points out, by treating white people as a monolith and racially essentializing everyone. “All individuals are complex and multifaceted. If we treat any human being, any group of people, as a conglomerate, we run the risk of stereotyping them, reducing them, in our words and in our actions, and turning them into an abstraction,” she said. “That’s not going to be helpful or sustainable for anyone. We have to treat each other like family.”

Whereas DiAngelo explains the alienation that her sessions elicit from some by faulting the participants for being too fragile, Valdary believes that it is her job to get everyone to participate enthusiastically. “Dance and DJing has thoroughly affected my approach to all this because what a DJ does is facilitate an experience in which people from all walks of life dance,” she told me. “It’s another numinous experience that has roots in the African American aspect of my identity, and it’s why I’m an avid DJ and dancer.” But before presuming the efficacy of any framework, including Theory of Enchantment, we should study outcomes with rigor––the entire DEI industry lacks sufficient assessment––and ask whether advancing social justice is best accomplished through more training for elites.

You can tell a lot about the role that Valdary plays in the culture wars by her ability to enchant others in situations when most never could. I saw her trending on Twitter recently, usually a sign of an angry pile-on, but in this instance people were praising her for a thread about Donald Trump supporters and critical race theory, two of the most fraught and polarizing subjects in America. She is critical of both, once writing, “Trump can’t take on critical race theory … he shares its fundamental belief that life is a zero-sum power game, that it’s okay to dehumanize your enemies, and that preying on people’s fears for the sake of power is fair game.”

On this occasion, she was empathizing with adherents of these rival ideologies that she rejects. “I think I’m having one of the biggest aha moments I've had all year,” she began. After studying various documents that circulate in diversity, equity, and inclusion circles on the “woke” left, she noticed that they define equitable workplaces as those that value things like interdependence and collaboration. If you boil much of it down, she suggested, activists are urging a more communal work life, where employees are seen as humans with worth and emotions, such that communication and collaboration are important to thriving. Valdary believes that “woke” approaches to DEI incorporate “racecraft,” which is distorting and counterproductive. But she cheers attempts to create workplaces that reduce alienation and isolation.

“Here’s the bridge,” she continued. On the right, a defining feature of communities that voted for Trump at the highest rates was their alienation. She cited Tim Carney’s carefully reported book Alienated America, in which he shows that Trump was more popular in places where fewer traditional connections existed among citizens. ”These were communities where the civic life and civic institutions in the community evaporated,” Valdary wrote. “Churches were shuttered; communal life dithered …  It was precisely the absence of a shared sense of belonging and communal life that led to an increase in deaths of despair, opioid addictions, aimlessness, and the like.” In this respect, folks on the “woke” left and the “reactionary” right want the same things, Valdary observed. “Alienation is a massive culprit re our societal woes … Groups who are fighting against it can only see how it affects *their in group* but not their adversary.”

I largely agree with Valdary here: As I see it, if woke-left or reactionary-right illiberalism wins, everyone loses. But reduce alienation in American life and both “woke” illiberalism and Trumpist illiberalism will wither and their adherents will be better off. You may disagree. Regardless, notice how her thread treats people she fundamentally disagrees with as human beings, not political abstractions; how she criticizes to uplift, not to tear down; the compassion of her approach and how it synthesizes disparate insights and injects them improvisationally into the public square.

While attuned to what ails us––alarmed by it, in fact––she insists that it is within our power to overcome if we love with urgency. “Right now we are dealing with mass unemployment, poverty, inequality, a pandemic, and abuses of power,” she lamented on Twitter. “We have no idea what traumas and fears our neighbors carry, and they have no idea which of those we carry.” Nevertheless, she said, we’re all afflicted by the same fears because we’re human, never mind “racialists” caught up in “hyper-identitarian ideology” who urge us to treat one another with contempt. “This is madness,” Valdary objected. “It is the African American tradition to use soul power to wage a war of unconditional love against hatred, discord, and bigotry. This is my birthright. If you are an American—regardless of where you come from—it is your birthright too.”

In one of the most memorable passages in The Omni-Americans, Murray muses on the blues idiom in American music. Some misconstrue the blues as a mere therapeutic expression of despair for Black people they regard as alienated from the country. But the blues idiom, like all transcendent art, goes beyond making life bearable, he explained. It helps make human existence meaningful and significant––and it is quintessentially American, he observed, as well as absolutely essential to thriving in America.

The blues ethos captures and inspires “impromptu heroism,” he insisted:

The sense of well being that always goes with swinging the blues is generated … not by obscuring or denying the existence of the ugly dimensions of human nature, circumstances, and conduct, but rather through the full, sharp, and inescapable awareness of them … When the Negro musician or dancer swings the blues … he is confronting, acknowledging, and contending with the infernal absurdities and ever-impending frustrations inherent in the nature of all existence by playing with the possibilities that are also there.

No other attitude, he believed, is more appropriate “to the ever-shifting circumstances of all Americans,” who inhabit a dynamic country that has always demanded a pioneering spirit.

Every anti-racist intellectual, and every DEI-training framework, is sharply aware of human ugliness. But Valdary’s participation in public discourse and her pioneering Theory of Enchantment distinguish themselves. They contend with the human condition and its “infernal absurdities” and “frustrations” by playing with the possibilities that are also there.