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.” Read more here.