Racism, Anti-Racism, & Mimesis

An interview with writer and entrepreneuer Chloé Valdary

I first encountered Chloé Valdary’s work while I was in the throes of writing Wanting. It was the summer of 2020. I was concerned that race issues in America were turning into a full-blown mimetic crisis, replete with scapegoats.

I reached out to her late last year after exploring her curriculum, Theory of Enchantment. I sent her a galley copy of my work. We connected over Zoom. We had a great conversation about a variety of things, including a realization that we’d both spent a lot of time around the same coffee shop in Brooklyn.

At that time, I thought that I wanted to include an entire section in my book about mimesis and race relations, mimetic politics, economics, and a host of other more controversial topics. But I quickly came to the realization that it would’ve been too much. A separate book.

In the meantime, though, the conversations had to start. They would form the basis for having anything worthwhile to say.

Why the Q&A Form

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of dialogues. I’m taking my cue from the example set by René Girard himself.

In Cynthia Haven’s Conversations with René Girard, she notes that many of Girard’s great works—Things Hidden, Evolution & Conversion, Battling to the End—are in the form of dialogues. Sandor Goodhart told her that Girard, as a professor, was “doggedly dialogic. He likes working with people on things. He always spoke in terms of ‘us,’ ‘our’ project. What ‘we’re’ doing. He had a sense of discovery.”

Haven quotes the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin to support Girard’s approach: “Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of the individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction.”

To view ourselves as dialogic is to view ourselves as mimetic creatures in the most positive way. Mimesis can eventually give birth to truth.

I picked my dialogue back up with Chloé after I saw that she was mentioned in this New York Times piece, titled “New York’s Private Schools Tackle White Privilege. It Has Not Been Easy.”

After it was published, she responded to it in a Tweet that caught my eye:

So I thought this might be a good time to visit the issue. Without further ado:

The Interview with Chloé Valdary

Luke: You own a company that teaches antiracism called “Theory of Enchantment.” I’ve heard it described as “anti-racism training that isn’t racist.” What does that mean? How is your approach different than other antiracism programs?

Chloé: I cannot speak for all other antiracism programs, but from what I’ve heard, many of them take a very different approach that consist of telling an institution’s staff that it is practicing “whiteness,” and that they need to unlearn these practices. Diversity consultants define whiteness as a set of beliefs and customs, for example, the belief in timeliness, or objectivity, or a written tradition, or the nuclear family. (You can explore more here.)

Now, the conservative response to this is to say that all these people simply hate the West and hate Enlightenment values and hate the liberal tradition, but what I suspect is going on is far more complicated than that, and is in fact a confusion of race with culture. There are, for example, certain byproducts of the Enlightenment and of Scientific Rationalism and the Protestant Work Ethic that are worth critiquing. Great thinkers like cognitive scientist John Vervaeke and Professor Camile Paglia have pointed this out in their work. Whether we’re talking about the Cartesian paradigm that perceives the human being as a computational machine (as opposed to a living, breathing organism) or Paglia’s observation that the nuclear family is in fact a very modern invention, a product of the Industrial Revolution, and not very conducive to mitigating the burdens and challenges of rearing children, all of these are very valid things to discuss and unpack when it comes to understanding the Western tradition.

The problem is that both right-wing conservatives and left-wing diversity consultants tend to paper over these nuances and conflate culture with race. Italian culture, for example, has historically not been nuclear-family oriented. And there is a rich tradition of oral dialectic learning in the West which is embodied by some of our most revered sages, like Socrates and Homer and Plato. There is no reason that this tradition can’t be in dialogue with, say, the uniquely American tradition of Hip Hop. But all of this is lost and I suspect this is because both conservatives and liberals tend to view the world as a zero-sum Manichean lens of good vs evil, and this drives them to either deify the West or demonize it. 

All of this is necessary to outline because Theory of Enchantment is really trying to get people to exit the demonization/deification mindset and grapple with complexity, the complexity of their own lives, the complexity of their relationships with others, and the complexity of the societies in which they live. It is very much anti-Manichean and very much relational. It posits that racism, or supremacist ways of thinking erupt when a person is not in the right relationship with themselves; when they experience some form of insecurity and then instead of dealing with that in a holistic manner, they project it onto another person in order to feel better about themselves. This is fundamentally what the pathology of supremacy is all about. Whether it is present in an individual or within an institution, this is what is happening at bottom.

So Theory of Enchantment says, okay, how can we help one another deal with ourselves and our insecurities in a holistic way, so we don’t overcompensate, so we don’t project, so we don’t disassociate? What are the tools we need to learn how to do that? What are the practices we need to embody in our everyday lives to make that a reality?

And we have very real answers to that question and we use very specific vehicles like literature and music and philosophy and Art in general, which, unlike polemics or ideological takes, affords us all a sense of our own complexity. And our theory of change is that once you’re able to perceive your own complexity, you will be able to perceive the complexity of others and will be less likely to stereotype or caricature or reduce others to one single thing -- just like the West is not one single thing.

Luke: What connections have you seen between mimetic theory and your work? How do you think mimetic theory might help inform discussions about race relations or racism and/or anti-racism training programs?

Chloé: Well, as you know, mimetic theory is this idea conceived by French philosopher René Girard, and in its most basic sense, it’s this idea that as human beings we imitate each other and we desire what others desire. So if a person in our social circle has a BMW, we’re more likely to desire a BMW not because we would objectively want one but because this person we know has one. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because one can desire other people’s virtues or other good aspects of their character or things of neutral value. But there are at least two other factors to consider here. 

The first is liminality. We’re living through a period of incredible liminality. A liminal time is one in which our rituals have become upended, we have no sense of groundedness, and we are untethered to regular life cycles. Look at covid and what it’s done to our work-life balance, our ability to physically connect with one another, and the way we make sense of the world around us. We are totally upended which means we’re living through a period of incredible ambiguity in terms of meaning & belonging. 

To make things even worse, we are in many ways, as Christopher Lasch argued, a deeply narcissistic society.  And here is where mimesis can become this pathologically infinite hall of mirrors. If a society is narcissistic, it means that there are a significant number of people who have no deeply grounded sense of self, and who require external validation to feel whole. It means that people will desire what others desire ad infinitum, regardless of whether those desires are healthy. And it also means that people will lack the self-awareness required to question those desires since there is no Self to be aware of in the first place. How that plays into race relations is a very terrifying thing to contemplate. I think James Baldwin alluded to it in his essays, ‘The Fire Next Time’ and ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel.’ The snippet in the former is worth quoting in full:

“Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become. It is this individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives, that makes the discussion, let alone elucidation, of any conundrum—that is, any reality—so supremely difficult. The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—for this touchstone can be only oneself. [emphasis:mine] Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes. And these attitudes, furthermore, though the person is usually unaware of it (is unaware of so much!), are historical and public attitudes. They do not relate to the present any more than they relate to the person. Therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.”

Two things to note about this is, one) even though Baldwin was speaking about white Americans in a time of pronounced institutionalized racism, I think today many Americans of all races have fallen prey to this phenomenon of not trusting themselves, of not having a grounded sense of self to begin with. And there are explanations for that that have something to do probably with our hyper-consumerist ways of being. But two) perhaps even more interesting, I would argue that many diversity consultants are actively ENCOURAGING white people to distrust themselves, to be insecure, and to take some sort of weird pride in that insecurity. Look at Robin Diangelo’s ‘White Fragility,’ which literally asks its white readers to distrust themselves. It is so fascinating to me that the very thing that Baldwin warns white people against doing is something that white people are actively being encouraged to do—precisely because they are white. 

So you have people being encouraged to wallow in insecurity and seek external validation from others and to imitate others who do, as a way to fight racism. This will not end well.

Luke: Is there any mimetic theory (even if it doesn’t go by that name…) in the “Theory of Enchantment” curriculum? 

Chloé: In a very basic sense the idea that the same emotions, fears, anxieties, concerns, etc that exist within you also exist within me -- although they are colored by different contexts and histories -- seems mimesis adjacent at the very least. 

Luke: From the perspective of mimetic theory, sometimes being “anti” anything is a recipe for becoming more like that thing. This has made me wonder if “anti-racism” is the wrong way to think about it, or maybe that we could use a better word for it. Do you have any thoughts on that? 

Chloé: Yeah I’ve thought about this but I don’t think it’s necessarily the case. If racism is not merely inequality but a way of being, then being anti that presupposes the adoption of a different way of being which is not counter-dependent upon any single human being.

Luke: I like to try to talk about positive mimesis and not stay stuck in the mud. Who would you say are the positive models that someone who wants to make a difference should be looking to? Past or present, who do you feel should be getting more attention right now?

Chloé: In no particular order: John Vervaeke, Camile Paglia, Jordan Peterson, Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, Marie Louise Von Franz, Carl Jung, Kendrick Lamar, Reinhold Niebuhr, Beyoncé, Iain McGilChrist, Sun-El Musician, Alvin Ailey, Mumford & Sons (Yes I know), Lao Tzu, Jesus, Erich Fromm.

Luke: My friend Hollis Robbins, a scholar of African American literature, wrote a book called Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition. This is from the book description: “Forms of Contention argues for the centrality of sonnet writing to African American poetry, focusing on significant sonnets, key anthologies, and critical debates about poetic form to show that the influence of black sonnet writers on each other challenges long-standing claims that sonnet writing is primarily a matter of European influence.” Part of the argument is that African American writers have struggled with knowing whether or not they should adopt, or want to adopt, white “models” (like sonnet-writers) or whether their models should be other African American writers. She drew my attention to this passage by Jay-Z in his book, Decoded, about his lyrics, where he’s talking about his song “Public Service Announcement”. Here’s Jay-Z:

“The subject of the first verse wasn’t blazingly unique. It’s a variation on a story I’ve been telling since I was ten years old rapping into a tape recorder: I’m dope. Doper than you. But even when a rapper is just rapping about how dope he is, there’s something a little bit deeper going on. It’s like a sonnet, believe it or not. Sonnets have a set structure, but also a limited subject matter: They are mostly about love. Taking on such a familiar subject and writing about it in a set structure forced sonnet writers to find every nook and cranny in the subject and challenged them to invent new language for saying old things. It’s the same with braggadocio in rap. When we take the most familiar subject in the history of rap—why I’m dope—and frame it within the sixteen-bar structure of a rap verse, synced to the specific rhythm and feel of the track, more than anything it’s a test of creativity and wit. It’s like a metaphor for itself; if you can say how dope you are in a completely original, clever, powerful way, the rhyme itself become proof of the boast’s truth.”

So it seems like he’s saying that the imitation of the form—the fact that everyone is rapping in a similar structure—is an important part of the process of differentiation! There needs to be some basis for comparison, some standard for the rivalry.

First, feel free to just respond to that. Second, I’m curious whether you have any thoughts about how the circumstances in which a person is raised might affect the kinds of models they want to, or don’t want to, adopt. I’m thinking of this in part because of a conversation that I had with a young African American college student who told me that he was basically not sure what kind of model he was supposed to adopt: he didn’t want to be what the predominately white culture around him was telling him he should be (and felt that that culture may have barred the door on him before he got there—a true Model-Obstacle); at the same time, he didn’t want to reject it completely and live his life as a kind of anti-hero against it. He said that he felt caught in the middle, unsure of who he was supposed to be looking to. He didn’t use the word “model of desire,” but that’s what I heard as he was telling me this. 

Alright, so that was a lot. My apologies. This is something I’ve wanted to understand for a while, especially since I became familiar with Girard and mimetic theory, and I’d love to hear your perspective on this somewhat “vocational” question. 

Chloé: The first: Yes I think this goes more to my earlier point of how people are conflating culture with race, and also a point made by Jordan Peterson and others which is that artistic expression and craft actually require some form of discipline. This is the kind of balancing of ambiguity and order that any art form plays within. This is why I love DJing and producing music not only as a hobby but also as a kind of spiritual practice. I also should say Jay-Z and his wife are some of the greatest to ever do it. 

The second: He should read Ellison’s Invisible Man which tackles exactly that dilemma. There are two forms of dependence, one is co-dependence and one is counter-dependence. We know more about the former because it happens in lots of romantic relationships; but we don’t know the latter, which happens when you define your identity by who or what you oppose. This may seem like an independent identity but in fact it’s still very much a form of dependency and the realization of this is something the main character in Invisible Man must discover for himself. This requires what John Steinbeck once said is “an aching kind of growing.”

Luke: My intuition is that mimetic theory can do a lot to enrich some of the “thin” discussions about racism—the kind where nobody seems willing to explore the depths of humanity, but want to skate across the surface—but we’re only just now scratching the surface. I thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts, and I hope it’s the beginning of something positive. Is there anything else you’d like to share regarding the connections between mimetic theory and racism? Anything you’re still trying to work out? Anything we should be exploring? 

Chloé: In general, I think people should be pursuing the Arts as a form of spiritual practice. Whether that’s making music, dance, acting, what have you. The task of the Arts is to give people a sense of the full range of their humanity and a sense of transcendence. This is a very serious task, without which we would all fall into despair. The importance of the Arts is underestimated to our peril. 

A big thank you to Chloé Valdary for taking the time for this. This is the first in a series. Do you know someone else I should be talking to? Please let me know.