Beyond Cynical Theories • Part 3: How Chloé Valdary's "Theory of Enchantment" Transcends Cynicism
This is Part 3 of the “All We Are” series . These writings explore theories of ideological conditioning, ideas in the book “Cynical Theories”, the doctrine of “lived experience” (in which I explore my own lived experience of losing a close sibling to a tragic death), and reflections around Dr. Erec Smith’s argument for using empowerment as a basis for teaching, as laid out in his book, “Critique of Anti-racism in Rhetoric and Composition: the Semblance of Empowerment”.
Chloé Valdary, creator of Theory of Empowerment, a Compassionate Anti-racism program
As part of my “All We Are” series, I’ve chosen to highlight the work of Chloé Valdary, the founder of a program for what she has called “compassionate antiracism”. I believe her work represents and models the values that have the potential to carry us all further along the path of development as individuals and as a civilization.
Valdary is a public educator and lecturer who has designed a unique approach to diversity and inclusion for a program she calls the Theory of Enchantment. She is part of an increasingly prominent movement of black intellectuals who are pushing back against what they consider an extreme approach to race relations that has been promulgated in the media, academia, popular social movements, and activist subcultures.
In a 2020 podcast with Christopher Rufo, contributing editor of City Journal, Chloe Valdary spoke openly about the need for people from all walks of life to treat one another as individuals who share many traits and experiences that are universal to all human beings and not solely as representatives of their identity groups. This is is a message that needs to be broadcasted far and wide.
Alongside thought leaders like Coleman Hughes, John McWhorter, Denzel Washington, Frances S. Lee, Thomas Chatteron Williams, Kmele Foster, Dr. Carlos Hoyt, Cedrick-Michael Simmons, Ayishat Akanbi, Glenn Loury, Afrika Brooke, Derrick Blackman, John Wood Jr. Adolph Reed Jr., Greg Thomas, Shelby Steele, and other voices of color, Valdary promotes a message of racial unity and non-extremism that acknowledges both the unique experiences of people of color—including the very real experiences stemming from systemic racial bias—and the universal human experiences that are shared by people from all walks of life.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Valdary describes her approach to teaching anti-racism in workplaces and educational communities as a method of enhancing self-awareness among all members of a community so that this awareness can reflect the intellectual, psychological and moral sovereignty of every individual while also honoring the unique experiences and historical legacies of the identity groups they belong to. In the interview’s introduction, her work is described as involving “healthy identity formation” and as honoring “the porous borders where universal narratives merge with contemporary pop culture.” Instead of emphasizing racial differences between people —or creating an atmosphere of scapegoating, shame, collective guilt, and accusation that has become common in diversity training in recent years—Valdary’s approach focuses on the shared humanity of all people in the workplace.
In all of her work, Valdary speaks in depth about the importance of compassion and openness, frequently questioning the central role that racial essentialism has come to play in the increasingly widespread versions of cultural sensitivity training that are almost universally organized around the theoretical foundations of Critical Race Theory and other Critical Theory informed ideologies.
Valdary’s influences run the gamut from the traditional Western Classics to ancient Eastern mystics and Black artist-scholars such as James Baldwin, Albert Murray, and W.E.B. Dubois. And, while her writing represents a long and rich tradition of Black public intellectual thought that actively rejects the politics of resentment and victimization, like Dr. Adolph Reed Jr.’s well-known essay on “anti-racist” ideology and profit-oriented neoliberalism, her contribution to the present moment’s discussions around race and other topics related to equality and oppression is largely related to the positive mission of re-igniting a revival of the human spirit in us all.
In an Atlantic Magazine article published two weeks after President Joseph Biden’s Executive Order re-authorizing Critical Race Theory-inspired diversity programs in the Federal government, writer Conor Friedersdorf highlights Valdary’s emphasis on the central piece that goes into authentic racial harmony and reconciliation by sharing an October, 2020 Tweet in which Valdary notes that like James Baldwin, she believes that “a person cannot love another human being or treat another human being with the dignity they deserve if they do not love 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.”
The paragraph immediately following deserves some air time, too, as it pertains to Valdary’s insistence that those of us who come to terms with our own suffering and insecurities will naturally develop the capacity to be empathetic towards others, including those from other identity groups that we consider different from our own.
“Valdary believes that the same logic applies to people of all races, and she never segregates her students, as some DEI [Diversity, Equity, Inclusion] 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.’”
Towards the end of the Atlantic article, a passage from Valdary’s Twitter page is quoted. It’s a quote about our birthright. This, too, needs to be heard by all of us.
“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.”
Chloé Valdary is only one of the many influential contemporary young black women who have already begun to show us the way to a truly integrative vision that is as deeply inclusive as it is harmonious and reality-oriented. All of them are contributing in their own unique ways, from the gently subversive, soulful sincerity of Ayishat Akanbi, who asks us to return to our natural inborn capacities for empathy and self-awareness, and the social entrepreneurship of humanist Inaya Folarin Iman, founder of the Equiano Project, to the powerful clarion call of Afrika Brooke’s open letter, which challenges us all to shuck off the chains of ideological conditioning and inter-group hatreds so that we can reclaim our collective humanity and potential for self-actualization as a human species.
Centering the work of Chloé Valdary is the right choice for this moment of exploration around the issue of group identity essentialism because on a practical and immediate level, she has something pragmatic and tangible to offer in response to her frequently expressed concern about its most virulent form, racial essentialism. Valdary’s Theory of Enchantment program for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) offers a positive, intelligent and pragmatic alternative to the cynical versions of diversity training that have proliferated in recent years—a solid, coherent and morally persuasive vision for healthy identity formation, human rights, and racial and gender reconciliation in schools, the workplace, and other communities.
A chief insight that Chloé Valdary brings to her training is that the idea of power and privilege is too often considered to exist solely in the political and material realms, ignoring a much greater and more complete understanding of the power and influence we all have on other people and on our surroundings, irrespective of our social, cultural, economic, and historical place in life. Taking her cue from the stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius and the contemplative spiritual practice of agape(love and compassion in action), Valdary teaches that we all have influence far beyond these realms in that we each have a palpable impact on the emotional and spiritual experiences of others, including those who are above our own station and status in life. To bring this point home, Valdary borrows the term “soul force” from the Stoics to describe the often overlooked aspect of the interrelatedness of all human life.
In an interview with TED.com, Valdary describes how the word “enchantment” captured her and how she sees its possibilities in the way people deeply want to relate to one another:
Guy Kawasaki, the former marketing director of Apple, describes enchantment as the process by which you delight someone with a concept, an idea, a personality, or a thing. And it dawned on me that that's really what we're trying to get at. We're really trying to become enchanted by one another, to be full of wonder when we encounter one another. And this is really the step, the key to learning how to love ourselves and to love one another, in the process. So, after I wrote this thesis at the Wall Street Journal, I worked for a non-profit for two years, lectured on it, refined it in colleges across the United States and around the world, and came up with a whole system for teaching this.
She then describes the three principles of the Theory of Enchantment and its vision for bringing harmony into the world:
Now, there are three principles that are really the guideposts for the Theory of Enchantment. And it's important to understand them because I think that they will be useful in helping us heal our nation in this moment that we're dealing with racism and police brutality and really needing to advance towards social justice and social change. [...]Number One, treat people like human beings not like political abstractions. Number Two, if you want to criticize, criticize to uplift and empower, never to tear down, never to destroy. And, Number Three, try to root everything you do in love and compassion. [Bold emphasis mine]
In a January 2021 Atlantic Magazine piece on the Theory of Enchantment,, “Can Chloé Valdary Sell Skeptics on DEI?”, Conor Friedersdorf praises the difference between the compassionate approach of uplifting instead of tearing down and of treating people like human beings instead of treating them as “political abstractions:”
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.”
What makes Valdary’s vision so compelling is that she has presented a path for building a more equitable world in a way that invites all people to the table. This is not the stuff of mealy-mouthed, fence-sitting, milquetoast, all-of-us-get-along-ism. It’s the stuff of rigorous contemplation and a serious adult accounting of what might happen to our shared social reality if we cannot come together as a human clan to fix problems that most honest people have come to see as real and worthy of our collective problem-solving power
In the following thread that Chloe Valdary put out on Twitter in 2018, she drives home the urgency with which we almost take to heart the nature of our interdependence. While she focuses on race in this moment, the message transcends and includes race, and embraces what the ancient Zorastrians called the “Whole Catastrophe:”
I've realized the problem w/ recent definitions of racism isn't the notion that only people with power can be racist. It's that its adherents only understand power in the physical, material sense & not in the spiritual/soul sense which suggests that nearly everyone has power. If my character erodes & I mistreat my neighbor, & hate my brother because he looks differently from me, that has a *societal impact.* To say I don't have power because I don't hold a certain percentage of wealth is an attempt to abdicate moral responsibility. Such a view also ensures that inequality *continues* because the failure to treat people as responsible beings w/ moral agency contributes to the fetishization & caricaturing of blacks & whites alike. It also breeds spiritual impoverishment; we live in an interdependent society. Both conservatives and progressives are correct.
Valdary’s message and programming is a far cry from the extreme ideological totalism that has become mainstreamed since 2015. There are many examples of how these totalist ideologies have been embraced in mainstream institutions. In January of 2021, an “anti-racist” program was installed in New York City that forces teachers to confess that they are allegedly engaging in “spirit murder” against the “Black and brown bodies” of their students. A few months earlier in the summer of 2020, Federally funded “diversity training” programs that coerce white male nuclear energy laboratory technicians to confess their intrinsic inner wrongness and bigotry were installed in several labs across the country. These events are not easily defensible. It’s interesting to note that the Executive Order banning racial stereotyping that was signed by President Donald J. Trump in September of 2020 was not at all a ban on “racial sensitivity” training, as many in the media had reported. As this archived page of the Executive Order states, this policy only banned the “scapegoating” and “stereotyping” of individuals based on sex and race. In other words, it was a ban on the practice of group identity essentialism.
What makes the spread of group identity essentialism as a formally authorized belief system in the United States workplace most troubling is that much of the justification for the formal authorization of diversity training programs informed by these belief systems is derived from widely disputed studies around “unconscious bias” and the Implicit Bias Test from which the concept gained much of its recognition over the past decade.
This is an interesting era in which fashionable ideas—especially those premised on emotionally charged moral commitments—will be documented digitally for future generations to study. Given the eventual reckoning that is likely to occur when the current moral panic comes to pass, it would be wise for the most reputation-oriented professional leaders to come to acknowledge the reality that the short-term gains of “looking good” in the current revolutionary moment will indeed look quite bad not that far down the road when this temporarily exciting cultural zeitgeist dies down and maturity is called upon once again to take up the stewardship of our world.
It is the likes of Chloe Valdary, Coleman Hughes, Africa Brook, Ayishat Akanbi and other young thinkers of conscience who will provide us with a way forward. In the meantime, we will need to continue shining light on the shadows of cynicism that currently hold us under their power.
Continued in Part 4: Training Ourselves and our Communities in Cynicism