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How Did the OK Sign Become Linked to White Supremacy?

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Elna is a former transport safety researcher. She is a consultant for social projects and works mainly in South Africa and SADC countries.

How did the OK sign become a symbol for White supremacy?

How did the OK sign become a symbol for White supremacy?

The OK Sign and White Supremacy

Until recently, I have been using the OK sign interchangeably with the thumbs-up sign. During a not-so-successful deep-sea diving lesson, I was taught that this was the only sign divers used to indicate that all was well. I read on BBC Newsbeat that this sign has been added to the list of hate symbols. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the index finger-and-thumb gesture is being used by some as an expression of white supremacy.

In most cases, people still use the symbol in its original meaning—but far-right groups have started to use this sign consciously as a White supremacy symbol.

The overwhelming usage of the “okay” hand gesture today is still its traditional purpose as a gesture signifying assent or approval. As a result, someone who uses the symbol cannot be assumed to be using the symbol in either a trolling or, especially, White supremacist context unless other contextual evidence exists to support the contention. Since 2017, many people have been falsely accused of being racist or White supremacist for using the “okay” gesture in its traditional and innocuous sense.

— Anti Defamation League

Family Outraged at Despicable Me Character

During a Universal Orlando breakfast event attended by a family in March 2019, the family had their six-year-old, who loves the movie, take a photo with two actors dressed as Gru and a Minion. The six-year-old girl posed with an actor dressed as the movie character Gru from Despicable Me. Watching the video, you see the character inconspicuously curling his fingers into an upside-down "OK" symbol on the girl's shoulder.

According to USA Today, the actor responsible for this has been fired. It is easy to think that people may have been too sensitive, but watching the video, it is really creepy to watch it unfolding, and surely not accidental.

The “okay” hand gesture—in which the thumb and index finger touch while the other fingers of the hand are held outstretched—is an obvious and ancient gesture that has arisen in many cultures over the years with different meanings.

Today, in a usage that dates to at least as early as 17th century Great Britain, it most commonly signals understanding, consent, approval or well-being.

— Anti Defamation League

How Did Its Meaning Come to Change?

According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the gesture is associated with the word “okay” and its abbreviation “ok.” The gesture is also important in other cultures and contexts.

In 2017, the “okay” hand gesture was falsely promoted as a gesture of hate by anonymous posters on the 4chan website, claiming that the gesture represented the letters “wp” for “white power.” The okay gesture hoax was merely the latest in a series of similar 4chan hoaxes using various innocuous symbols; "in each case, the hoaxers hoped that the media and liberals would overreact by condemning a common image as White supremacist."

The hoax was quite successful in terms of the reaction, and some known white supremacists started using the symbol, building credibility for this new meaning. An example is the Australian white supremacist Brenton Tarrant flashing the symbol during a March 2019 courtroom appearance soon after his arrest for allegedly murdering 50 people in a shooting spree at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Use of the okay symbol in most contexts is entirely innocuous and harmless.


Mosque attacks suspect gives "white power" sign in Christchurch court.

Mosque attacks suspect gives "white power" sign in Christchurch court.

To OK or Not to OK

Despite starting as a hoax, the age-old symbol will probably not survive with its elegant meaning of just "OK." It has been ruined for ordinary people. Not all people are aware of this, and you will see many people using this gesture while speaking in public.

If you image-search the sign, you will find many examples of apparent innocent use. Donald Trump uses the sign quite often (maybe one of the reasons the hoax started?), but one cannot just ascribe that as a conscious gesture.

However, in the case of Tarrant, it is a grim confirmation of its new, dark meaning. In the case of the family at the Universal Orlando event, it is quite creepy to watch. It would be interesting to hear what the actor's excuse was. His employer took it seriously enough to fire the guy.

I don't think one should now go on a witch-hunt and find hidden dark intentions in every OK gesture. As for myself, I am refraining from using this icon in my WhatsApp messages, using the thumbs-up gesture instead—until that also gets ruined, of course.

Look out for the next sign the 4chan community set their eyes on.

Look out for the next sign the 4chan community set their eyes on.


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.