As debates about critical race theory, anti-racism, and equity dominate everywhere from social media to school board meetings to Capitol Hill, a young black activist is taking a wildly different approach to talking about the issue.
Chloé Valdary launched a program she named Theory of Enchantment in 2018 with high school students in mind. She wanted to teach them to love themselves and each other, she told The Dispatch. The content of her program hasn’t changed much, but her audience has. Today, she is sought out for training sessions on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) everywhere from high schools to federal agencies.
Prominent anti-racism author Robin DiAngelo has made a name for herself with her books White Fragility and Nice Racism and by traveling the country conducting “anti-racism” seminars. She argues that structural racism is at the root of American society and that white people must grapple with the harm they inflict on others, even unknowingly. Meanwhile, teachers unions have turned to Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to be an Antiracist, for guidance on how to incorporate anti-racism instruction into the classroom.
Those are not templates that Valdary follows. She does not focus on whiteness as a thing to be hated or avoided. Rather, she approaches every person as an individual. Valdary invites participants to learn more about themselves, and in turn “choose to comport ourselves in such a way that we approach one another with love and compassion, even in the midst of profound disagreement,” she explained.
Using literature and pop culture, Theory of Enchantment rests on three principles: First, treat people like human beings, not political abstractions. Second, criticize to uplift and empower, never to tear down or destroy. Finally, do everything you do with love and compassion.
Valdary, born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, always wanted to be involved in the arts. As a child, she wanted to be a sketch artist. She attended Langston Hughes Elementary School, and from a young age was exposed to deeply moving poetry. “The first poem I was asked to memorize was a poem about Harriet Tubman, but the second poem I was asked to memorize was a poem by Maya Angelou called Still I Rise,” Valdary remembers. From an impressionable age, exposure to art and literature shaped the way she viewed race and racial relationships.
As she got older, her passion became screenwriting. “I wrote very religiously, which says nothing about the quality of the scripts, but very religiously,” she told me. In high school, she attended New Orleans Creative Center of the Arts half the day. For her first two years at the University of New Orleans, she continued to study film and screenwriting. “I was really interested in story, and the power of story,” she explained.
In 2012, however, she changed majors to international studies and diplomacy. She researched the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and became a pivotal member of her campus Zionist club. Valdary was not Jewish herself, but she was raised in the Seventh-Day Sabbatarian Christian Intercontinental Church of God, a Christian denomination that observed Jewish holidays instead of standard Christian ones. “I’m grateful for that experience because it’s countercultural … You’re both inside and outside Christianity,” she reflects. This experience, rooted in profound questions of faith and practice, also gave her unique insights into Judaism as an outsider.
At the time, Valdary admits, her Zionist beliefs were rigid. She describes them as “far more chill now, since it’s far less reactive.” It’s not so much that the beliefs themselves have changed, but that her posture when approaching disagreement has shifted. In the past, she explains, her reactions came out of defense: “My ego was very triggered.” What brought her back was story: Stories from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from both sides of the battle lines, showcased humanness that changed her posture. “Literature rescued me from what would have otherwise been a very dogmatic, ideological bent.”
After graduation, Valdary worked for the Wall Street Journal on a fellowship. “I worked there for a year and ended up working on a thesis that became the catalyst for the Theory of Enchantment. It was very much inspired by my exploration of literature, in the sense that it sought to answer the question: How can you get communities that are in conflict to actually love each other?”
At first, her work focused on Israel. But this “essential question, how do you teach people how to love,” eventually “sort of got blown up into something beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and something beyond geopolitics, and became the question how do you teach people how to love, period.”
In December 2018, Valdary created Theory of Enchantment and expanded her original 45 minute lecture into an online course. “My initial objective was actually to provide a social emotional learning program using the course and the training to high school students,” she explained. But in 2019, before she even made the jump into the DEI space, the Federal Aviation Administration requested Theory of Enchantment for a full-day workshop. “It was totally random.” But “that was a foreshadow of things to come.”
“Then 2020 happened.”
After the death of George Floyd, demand for DEI training grew exponentially. Companies saw new demand, internally and externally, for proactive resistance to racism, sexism, and ableism. Her website was still marketing towards high school students, but soon requests from large companies came through. “That’s when I realized that there was a product market fit, and then I sort of pivoted,” Valdary said. But the content of her training remained the same. “We didn’t change anything because that piece was already part of the Theory of Enchantment.”
Within her literary allusions and pop-culture narratives, Chloé Valdary’s approach to mindfulness and universal love creates an invitation for her participants to love each other, which, as she sees it, is fundamental to being truly anti-racist.
This is not to suggest that Valdary denies the existence of racism. She just takes a dramatically different approach to ameliorating it. She wrote in the New York Times back in 2017—before she’d opened the doors for the Theory of Enchantment—of her own experience with racism, and how she responds:
“A college anthropology professor assumed I shouldn’t be held to the same standard as my white peers. I’ve been called a “house slave” for standing up against anti-Semitism. I’ve been called the N-word. But … every school I attended in New Orleans was either predominately black or multicultural. So I grew up around black kids and white kids and Hispanic kids and Jewish kids and Muslim kids and Asian kids. I was and still am able to navigate diverse cultural spaces with ease as a black woman—not because I assume that these people aren’t prejudiced toward me, but because if they are, I was raised not to respond in kind.”
During our conversation, Valdary returned regularly to the idea of response. You cannot control the way people respond to you; she cannot control what baggage her clients bring into her training; but she can control her response. During one training session, one of her clients paused and said, “I just want to acknowledge that most of the people in this room are white.” “Now, that has absolutely nothing to do with anything the Theory of Enchantment teaches,” Valdary told me—the woman was drawing on the style of anti-racism training pushed by the likes of Kendi and DiAngelo. “I felt myself being triggered by that. I started to other-ize her.” But her response did not come out of a reactive posture; instead, she reflected. “This is not something that is foreign to your experiences as a human being, this person is still your sister,” she told me.
In her sessions, Valdary works with material to which participants already know and feel attached to—pop culture. “Pop culture shows us what we gravitate towards and what we are in love with,” she tells me. She examined companies like Nike, Disney, and Apple “because these are all brands that have or have had in the past a quasi-religious-like devotion from their fans.” Valdary studied these companies to determine “what is it about these brands that are reflecting back to us something about our humanness. I discovered that the common denominator across these brands was that they were all creating content where we as human beings could see ourselves—our full, complex, imperfect, selves—and our potential reflected back.”
Judgement comes from ignorance, Valdary argues, so by giving people accessible ways to understand more about themselves and the people around them, they are less inclined to make snap judgements. In a given training, clients are exposed to the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, and Maya Angelou. But they will also watch Disney movies and listen to Kendrick Lamar. This wide exposure to creations both familiar and unfamiliar is intended to teach people to fall in love with the world around them.
“Theory of Enchantment is really trying to get people to fall in love with life,” Valdary told me. Instead of living life in a defensive posture, waiting to offend and be offended, Valdary wants people to live in a “joyful posture.” But, she explains, “in order to do that one must fall in love with oneself, and with all of the complexities of oneself, including one’s shortcomings and one’s mistakes. One must be able to accept themselves, in order to be able to see difference and delight in difference, as opposed to being frightened by difference, which is really just being threatened by aspects of yourself that you haven’t fully uncovered.”
“I could describe it as if people’s relationship with life became like a dance. Just bask in the joy of being alive, the joy and the wonder of being alive and to love both oneself, and the other. That’s the ultimate objective of the Theory of Enchantment. And that is how you solve racism, ultimately.”