Chloé Valdary on How to be a (True) Antiracist
Yascha Mounk and Chloé Valdary discuss what it would take to achieve a real cultural reconciliation.
Chloé Valdary is a writer and entrepreneur whose company, Theory of Enchantment, aims to offer a “human approach” to diversity and inclusion training.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Chloé Valdary discuss the flaws of the dominant paradigm in diversity, equity, and inclusion; why many of today’s interpersonal conflicts stem from a larger crisis of meaning; and how to engage in big debates about social issues without becoming a combatant in the culture war.
The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: I've been following your work for a long time and you're somebody who's pretty rare in that you write really interestingly about the world, but you're also a kind of entrepreneur and activist. You critique the way a lot of the diversity, equity, and inclusion space works, and rather than just complaining about it on Twitter, you're actually trying to build a better alternative.
Let's start with why you are concerned about the way that many companies, institutions, and universities run those kinds of DEI training, what's wrong with the status quo, and then perhaps later, we can get to what you want to put in this place.
Chloé Valdary: Funnily enough, I didn't intend to get involved in the diversity and inclusion space. I was building something that was established to basically teach people how to love. But folks who were part of companies that were bringing in diversity and inclusion trainings of a standard variety, were essentially experiencing the absence of love. They were experiencing an environment in which facilitators would come in and encourage people to judge one another based upon their skin color, or based upon other immutable characteristics that they might have possessed—encouraging people to self-segregate, even based upon skin color. This was oftentimes reported to cause havoc in the workplace, where people who didn't agree would be shunned, or their very disagreement would itself be deemed evidence of racism. This was causing discord between colleagues. I think that is what has been driving many organizations to look for an alternative approach.
Mounk: One way that I've heard that described is that a lot of these trainings are based on a “common enemy” model, and that what other people are trying to put in its place is a sort of “common humanity” model. Is that a helpful way of thinking about it?
Valdary: One could transform that premise in such a way that it doesn't have to be hostile, or it doesn't have to result in dehumanizing one another. You could position it to mean, “We all have a common enemy, and the common enemy is in each of us. It's ourselves.” But yes, I could also see it applying in that sort of limited way that you mean right now, where the common enemy is basically, white people—for lack of a better way of putting it. People with white skin color are basically given a sort of a metaphysical designation as being the representation of, and the source of, all evil in the United States, against which we all must fight, without end.
The alternative that I try to present with my organization is an approach that essentially says: bigotry and prejudice is usually caused when a person or group of people are experiencing some kind of insecurity, usually of a psychological nature, and because they don't have the proper tools to deal with that, they project that insecurity onto other groups of people as a defensive mechanism. And so, if you want to tackle that in a sustainable way, you actually have to teach people how to get in a healthy relationship with themselves and with their own complexity, so that they're less likely to project in the first place.
What that requires is a questioning of some of the dogmas of contemporary DEI, which may themselves be coming from a place of insecurity on the part of those facilitators who are promoting them. White Fragility was obviously a super popular book in 2020, and the idea was that white people are inexorably and existentially fragile when it comes to talking about race, and are basically always wrong if they have a different opinion on race. They're always wrong by the simple virtue of their skin color. And that resulted in the infantilization of people with darker skin color, this idea that black people are totally incapable of withstanding or dealing with disagreement or any diversity of opinion on this very specific topic.
In accusing white people of being inherently racist, DiAngelo actually perpetuates the notion that she herself is racist. She also perpetuates certain ideas that are at the heart of white supremacy itself, because if you believe that every single aspect of black life in America is somehow desolate, or full of despair, and that all of that despair and desolation is actually caused by white people or whiteness, then you are conceding that whiteness is, in fact, an all-powerful, omnipresent force—this is an actual tenant of white supremacy.
Mounk: On an intellectual level, what I found most striking about DiAngelo's theory is the ways in which it is unfalsifiable: “I have a very extreme view of the nature of racism in the United States, and if you don't acknowledge that in any kind of way, that's just all the more proof that you're racist, and of how strong the hold of white supremacy is.” There's no standpoint from which you can legitimately criticize DiAngelo's theory.
What I find most striking is that she said on a number of occasions that when a white person interrupts a nonwhite person, they're bringing the whole apparatus of white supremacy to bear on that person. But that, I think, shows an inability to envisage a relationship of equals. Obviously, there can be an old white boss or faculty member or whoever who continually interrupts, in a disrespectful way, the young woman of color. Sure. We all know that that exists, and that's relevant to worry about. But when you're friends with someone, you interrupt them sometimes. That's just the nature of being friends.
Valdary: Yes, it's funny you say that. I was recently thinking about acquiring a number of practices that John Vervaeke, the cognitive scientist out of the University of Toronto, describes as “serious play” —things like Tai Chi, meditation, dialogue, or even acting. All of these things are practices that require a kind of capacity to be present, which requires the capacity to be vulnerable. These are both necessary when cultivating deep friendship.
But if you superimpose a superficial way of speaking towards each other, by virtue of skin color, then you actually make that kind of deep friendship-cultivation impossible, because you're not being present. You're not actually dialoguing with true vulnerability. You're just sort of anticipating what's going to happen next, because you've assumed all of these different things about your fellow dialoguer. That is really unhealthy behavior to encourage, especially right now. We just went through COVID and we were in isolation for a long time. We weren't able to connect to each other physically. We need to cultivate a capacity for deep friendship, especially now, because of the scarcity of friendship and real connection during COVID. Instead, we have quasi-movements that are encouraging us to go in the opposite direction, and that's really dangerous.
Mounk: I think you’ve just expressed, in a very different language, something that I've thought about a lot and which helps to explain why I'm so allergic to people like DiAngelo. I grew up Jewish in Germany, and within that context, I was sort of a representative of a historically oppressed minority group. And the most alienating thing I experienced wasn’t anti-Semitism, which I experienced sometimes, but not often, which was certainly unpleasant—it was a kind of creepy philo-Semitism, where people were so aware of our respective identities, and were so careful in how they treated me and so desperate to prove to me how much they loved Jews and how sorry they were for the crimes of Germany's past. But it just felt impossible to have a genuine friendship with them. That is not the way to treat somebody as an equal.
I think you've described very clearly and compellingly what the problem of some of those trainings is. So, what is the theory that underlies your work, and how do you try to put it into practice?
Valdary: The Theory of Enchantment is the name of my organization, and we’re grounded in three principles: treat people like human beings, not political abstractions; criticize to uplift and empower, never to tear down or destroy; and try to do everything in love and compassion, again, with the understanding that supremacy as a general, psychological tendency, is actually an extreme form of projection. (The supremacist has to be deeply insecure, because otherwise they would feel no reason to tear another person down in order to feel good about themselves. So it's a projection.) We have workshops, and also an online course that teaches people how to get in a healthy relationship with themselves, and how to start to accept their own diversity.
Sometimes when I ask people about their vision of a racially harmonious society, they'll say, “When I see a snapshot of a graduation or something, I want it to have more diverse faces. I don't want it to be all white faces.” I tell that person, “At Theory of Enchantment, we believe that there's so much diversity in a single human being, let alone an entire group of people.” It's really the lens that we're trying to get you to obtain, one through it you can see that even in a room full of white people, there is diversity going on. You just have to know how to look in a way that goes beyond simply being skin-deep. And you can only do that by first learning how to do it with yourself. because when we stereotype others, we also simultaneously stereotype ourselves. By stereotyping a group of people as, you know, lazy, I'm denying the fact that in some contexts, I am lazy. So I'm pigeonholing myself even while pigeonholing others. All of our work is in the service of getting people to expand their perception—first, internally, and then working through that externally.
Mounk: This sounds convincing to me as a theory of both what produces discriminatory viewpoints in people, and how to make people into whole human beings who are capable of loving. But are we aiming too high in an organizational context? If I'm running an institution or a company, I just want to make sure that people treat each other decently and get the job done. As much as I would love to have everyone in the institution become spiritually whole, some people just aren’t going to become spiritually whole. It's not clear that it's either my job or within the capacity of me as an institutional leader to transform people in that kind of way. Perhaps, in order to make sure that we get along in this complicated, diverse society, we should aim a little bit lower?
Valdary: We’re not for everyone, that's for sure. But we know what we stand for. We are definitely, I would say, spiritually and psychologically-minded. But I also feel like there are certain emergencies going on in America right now, in terms of a collapse of meaning, and superficial identities causing discord and inciting polarization. All of these things, and especially the collapse of meaning, mean we must focus on the question of how we become whole. It would be one thing if there were just pockets, just little dams breaking here and there. But it seems to me that a tsunami is coming, and I think that that requires a holistic solution. And quite frankly, if you're running an organization, and the people in your organization are whole beings, the organization will run well, and it will run better just for the simple fact that the people will have better tools to deal with any conflict that might come up interpersonally, within the confines of the organization. That will affect how it's run and how it operates in many different facets. But I do think that we're facing a huge problem in America. It is an existential problem, and an epistemological problem. To go back to Robin DiAngelo—she was basically proposing an epistemology, right? A kind of way of knowing. When you get into that territory, you have to have something on that same level in order to tackle it. Band aids won’t do it.
Mounk: So, what would you say to a critique which says, “Look, it's wonderful for people to become more whole and to work on themselves in that kind of way. But I think it is a fair critique to point out that some political cabinet is just all white people, and it probably shows that people have been excluded in some kind of way, because there is talent in every demographic in the United States”?
Within your workshop, is there space for saying, “Hey, I feel isolated here, because people look at me weird because of my origin, or they have prejudices about my religion”, and so on? How do you build space for productive conversations about those real points of conflict?
Valdary: We teach different modalities in the Theory of Enchantment that are, I would say, specifically geared toward facilitating those difficult conversations. For example, we teach nonviolent communication, which was a methodology pioneered by Marshall Rosenberg, who did this in conflict zones all around the world.
Nonviolent communication is actually related to “serious play.” If we were to consider dialogue as a piece of serious play, and you get into conflict with another person, we have different practices like deep listening, empathy, or repeating back to the person precisely what they said, instead of immediately going into disagreement, so you can communicate to that person that you actually heard them. These are not easy propositions that come down from on high, or that are merely saying, “If you're experiencing someone being offensive towards you, then do X, Y, and Z immediately, and that will solve the problem completely.” Rather, we're giving people the emotional tools to be able to have empathy for each other even in the midst of profound disagreement. And our bet is that empathy, in the long run, will help people transcend the conflict.
But let me be very clear, we are co-creating these things with our partners. What we're not doing is going into an organization and trying to superimpose some kind of apparatus. We're trying to co-create ways of handling difficult conversations, because yes, someone might be experiencing something in the workplace that's very harmful. But how do you address it without causing more harm? And how do you put practices in place that make it less likely that that will occur in the future? That's really what we're focused on.
Mounk: Let's zoom out a little bit. You mentioned that DiAngelo has a kind of epistemology. She also has a basic political analysis, which says that the United States has always been defined by racism and white supremacy, and that we haven't made any significant progress.
There are many reasons to worry about our political situation. I certainly get very depressed when I look at cable news, and I get very worried when I think about the 2024 election. But I also feel somewhat more optimistic than DiAngelo seems to be about the state of our society. What's your assessment of the ability of people all across the country to actually communicate with each other in a meaningful way across those kinds of boundaries?
Valdary: There are definitely organizations working on depolarization. Broadly speaking, it's hard to tell, though, because I'm on social media. Social media is a bubble, but it gives me the perception that people are just constantly at each other's throats. So, to what extent that is the truth versus a bubble that I'm in is a very difficult question to answer.
With that, plus the spike in mental health issues, which we've seen before but which got worse during COVID, especially among young people—I think that the combination of those two factors is very worrisome. Will we weather that storm in the next decade? I couldn't tell you. I have no idea. My perception has been that, growing up, these were not conversations that were happening in my elementary school.
Let's just take race, for example. In my elementary school, and in my high school—I went to both predominantly black and multicultural schools—in neither of those environments do I remember this sort of approach to speaking about race that we've taken collectively now. We definitely talked about it, but it wasn't in this way, and it wasn't through this paradigm. So I'm not sure about the future. I only know that if we want to change the future, we have to do the work. We can't sit back and assume that it's going to be all peachy in 10 years. I'm sorry to say it, but we have to do the work of learning how to become whole. And the original model of the United States is E Pluribus Unum—”Out of many, one,” which is an incredibly difficult thing to accomplish. Some might argue it’s impossible, right? But this is, I would argue, the legacy and the birthright of our nation and we have to really do the work in order to become that vision.
Mounk: One question that I have is about what ultimately divides us at the moment. Often, according to how the media presents it, what really divides us is ethnicity, culture, and race. I think there's some interesting implications to that. The obvious development from the 1960s to today is that in 1960, parents did not object to their children marrying somebody of a different political party, and now they do. At the same time, in 1960, most Americans would have very strenuously objected to the child marrying somebody of a different race. Now, thankfully, most Americans do not object to that. Does that track with your experience leading these workshops, that the political divisions are the deepest? Or is there still this real cultural division and discomfort with each other along more identitarian lines? Where is the conflict occurring between people?
Valdary: I think it's a false dichotomy between those two categories. People are polarized across political lines. But I think the reason for that is cultural. There are many reasons, but one of the reasons is the collapse of meaning. The thing that is most hotly discussed in my workshops is race—maybe the intersection of race and culture. But what's informing that is a paradigm that basically views the world as a fight between the oppressors and the oppressed, all the way down. Basically, that's the epistemology, and I'm familiar with that because I grew up in a very religious home that had a similar epistemology, which wasn’t quite the same, but similar, and not along racial, but religious lines. That was the constant framing. So I understand how the framing works, and I understand the allure. And that’s the most difficult challenge to contend with, because that framing is easy. It's enticing. It's alluring. There's a simple solution; it's us versus them. Carl Jung said that that view of the world is actually our default state, as human beings, because of our limbic system. So, when I say that we have to do the work of becoming whole, I'm really saying that we need to talk about how to improve systems, right? How to change the system, how to reform the system, how to overthrow the system—but we're walking around with the limbic system, which is millions of years old. We have to work on that system, first and foremost, because that is the lens through which we perceive and experience everything. And that's a tall order. I recognize that. But that's what I'm going for.
Mounk: Another way to think about it is that you’re trying to give people a path through the culture wars that doesn't involve them becoming combatants on one side or the other.
I understand that, for you, artists and the arts have a huge role to play in that. What does it mean to create art at a moment when the world is so polarized into warring ideological tribes?
Valdary: Well, one of my favorite artists is Michaela Coel, a brilliant writer and actress. For her work on the amazing HBO drama I May Destroy You, which I highly recommend, she won an Emmy for writing, and in her speech, she actually talks about the importance of artists not being afraid to not be in the public eye all the time. We are being tempted constantly by social media, which asks you to pay attention all the time, to everything happening, all the time. And that can actually stunt one's creative process, because it's all external-facing. You're constantly wondering, “How many likes do I have? How many retweets? How many people outside of myself are externally validating my work?” Whereas in order to be a true artist, artists have to have the courage and the confidence to be with themselves in silence. She says, “Don't confuse visibility for success.”
I often think of these concepts of whiteness and blackness, which are two terms that have entered our lingo very recently, actually, because of mass culture. I wonder what that has to do with philosophy coming out of academia. But does it also have something to do with people just wanting to create products out of identity, and sort of repackage and sell them to people? The artist has to be wary of that in order to maintain the integrity of her work.
Mounkb: Finally, for listeners who are convinced by this and want to become more whole, what do you recommend they do if they don't happen to have the benefit of one of these trainings? What are some of the practices or readings you would suggest, if people want to either start out on that journey for themselves or help someone else along in that journey?
Valdary: Well, I will start by saying that anyone can enroll in Theory of Enchantment at any time. The online course is available to anyone who would like to enroll. In terms of books, there are just too many books I could recommend. I'm interested in the way that human being works, fundamentally. I would check out books like The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, which is about the brain. From a political perspective, I would check out The True and Only Heaven, by Christopher Lasch. For a sort of cultural commentary on race, I would check out the writings of Albert Murray. For Jungian psychology, which the Theory of Enchantment is heavily informed by, I would check out anything by Marion Woodman, Helen Luke, or Jung himself. That's a lot, but it’s the world I'm swimming in right now.
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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.
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