How Did the OK Sign Become Linked to White Supremacy?

Updated on October 30, 2019
elnavann profile image

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

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Until today I have been using the OK sign interchangeable with the thumbs-up sign. During a not-so-successful deep-sea diving lesson, I was taught that this was the only sign divers use 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 6-year old, who loves the movie, take a photo with two actors dressed as Gru and a Minion. The 6-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 had 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 to 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.

— ADL
Mosque attacks suspect gives "white power" sign in Christchurch court.
Mosque attacks suspect gives "white power" sign in Christchurch court. | Source

To OK or Not to OK

Even though this started as a hoax, in this case, 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. | Source
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Questions & Answers

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      • elnavann profile imageAUTHOR

        elnavann 

        13 days ago from South Africa

        Deniz thank for the comment. i have just looked at some articles on the middle finger gesture which has had a negative meaning for many years - as far back as ancient Greece. I think social media today affects the speed with which changed meanings are adopted.

      • Deniz Tekiner profile image

        Deniz Tekiner 

        2 weeks ago

        Interesting article. There's obviously sometimes overstep and excess in efforts of interest groups to censor or stigmatize certain symbols or words. But certain symbols and words may actually change with time and I guess in some cases it may make sense for one to alter one's use of them accordingly. I don't tend to use hand symbols anyway so this case probably won't effect me.

      • elnavann profile imageAUTHOR

        elnavann 

        3 weeks ago from South Africa

        Ken and Readmikenew. Thank you for your comments. I think the speed with which these labels can get stuck to a sign is worrying. Ultimately we might stop caring since it will be too confusing.

      • Readmikenow profile image

        Readmikenow 

        3 weeks ago

        Good article. It just shows there are those who are willing to take advantage of the left's non-stop search for things they can label as racist. It obviously doesn't matter if it's real or imagined. Enjoyed reading this article.

      • Ken Burgess profile image

        Ken Burgess 

        3 weeks ago from Florida

        A very good explanation of why OK has become not OK to use.

        I can't recall the last time I used the OK sign, but I'll keep in mind not to be using it now.

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