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The ‘OK’ Hand Sign and the Hate Symbol Trap

Once again, trolls have mired us in the very debate they want to have

This week, a USA Today article appeared on Reddit’s r/nottheonion, a place for weird news stories hard to distinguish from stuff in the satirical newspaper The Onion. “Family Outraged After A Universal Character Made ‘OK’ Symbol on 6-Year-Old’s Shoulder,” reads the headline; the story relates how an employee at a Universal Orlando hotel in costume as Gru from the Despicable Me franchise displayed the hand gesture in a photo with a biracial girl whose parents later complained. A spokesman went on the record to apologize, and while declining to get into the resort’s “investigation” of the matter, confirmed the actor was no longer with them.

If you find this confusing, you’re not alone. Some typical comments from the Reddit thread:

  • “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
  • “I hate this world.”
  • “WAAAAAAAA look at me I’m a victim!”
  • “Lefties once again looking out for the working man.”

There’s speculation that the family wants a financial settlement or “their 15 minutes of fame” — as though a squabble with a theme park has ever led to a lucrative moment of celebrity. And then there are the redditors who hadn’t realized the “OK” sign could now be seen as racist, or that the Anti-Defamation League had recently added it to a database of “hate symbols.” One asked, “Since when is this associated with white supremacy?” Others referenced the “circle game,” a kind of pre-internet meme

The ADL’s entry (above), though far more nuanced and cautious in its phrasing than the media were in declaring the “OK” hand to be officially white supremacist, represents the culmination of a long process. The gesture has been used to exploit our binary mode of judgment — everything is either bad or good, racist or not-racist — and our tendency to invent details that don’t exist. The Universal coverage is a perfect example: It’s divisive, baffling, clickable content, and some redditors jumped on it as evidence of political correctness run amok. Several were aghast that the employee had been fired over the gesture, apparently missing the PR flack’s careful phrasing: “We can’t discuss specifics about this incident, but we can confirm that the actor no longer works here.” The reader never learns why he was let go, or whether he was actually terminated. The remark leaves open the possibility he’d simply quit, which I’d sure want to do if I had to dress up as a Minion every damn day of my life.

“The internet runs on outrage” is a cliché by now. I would tweak it to say: The internet is a game of making sure your opponent seems outraged, whereas you’re having fun. To get “mad online” is to lose the contest. A glaring problem here is that one side can preempt or interrupt the other’s response to characterize it as hysterical — “Oh, did I trigger you, snowflake?” — as a shortcut to the victory lap. There are people who will only see the subject of this piece and decide that I have been somehow fooled into getting upset over the “OK” symbol, or hoodwinked into misreading its semiotic values, because in a sense, to merely talk about it is to chomp down hard on rotten bait. No matter what I write here, the trolls will say that I got it wrong. It’s in their smug and clannish nature to insist on a privileged understanding of their own tired jokes, built on invisible histories, lest we come to the basic truth: it just ain’t that deep. 

Nevertheless, to state it plainly: No, I don’t see the “OK” hand as racist. (It’s one of my favorite emojis.) You do not need, as many right-wingers already have, to Google images of non-white people flashing the sign to prove this to me. There exists, however, a group of people who amuse themselves by raising the specter of white supremacy in connection with something so common and harmless. Like any other meme, this came about organically, with various communities picking up the thread — maybe the “OK” was inspired by Pepe the Frog, another contested symbol, or Donald Trump’s emphatic gesticulating — but of course it only had appeal to those edgelords who promote, either seriously or “ironically,” a hateful agenda. (Note how that tweet ostensibly mocking the idea that the “OK” sign is a white power dog-whistle instead reinforces the link and extends it to other everyday gestures, even widening the array of marginalized targets.)

The trolls would like you to think very hard about how this all started, if it was the work of Trump-supporting alt-right figures like Milo Yiannopoulos and Mike Cernovich or a 4chan prank campaign in 2017, to distract from the fact that all these people and websites have deep associations with xenophobic ideologies. You can easily grant that the “OK” isn’t racist, yet it’s evidently popular with racists, from MAGA militias to the Christchurch shooter.            

This puts the rest of us in an uncomfortable bind: If we brand the “OK” hand a white power salute, we feed the reactionary narrative of liberal softness and panic, and we become the “outraged” losers. We add to our paranoia: the cultural prevalence of the “OK” sign means we could develop the mistaken impression of being outnumbered by shadow agents of a crypto-Nazi movement, or hastily accuse someone of harboring those sympathies. The debate also pulls focus away from the mechanics and modes of systemic racism, toward a single vacuous part of its aesthetic. Worst of all, it sets the trolls up to do it again — to continue co-opting apolitical symbols for the eternal siege on our patience, attention and decency.

At the same time, we can’t pretend it’s not happening. Baseball analyst and former MLB player Doug Glanville stated the case against letting such ambiguities fester in a column he penned for the New York Times after a Cubs fan made the “OK” gesture behind him during a broadcast, for which the man was indefinitely banned from Wrigley Field. (The unnamed fan is white, and Glanville is black.) “Racism’s most prevalent form is subtle and stealthy, and it is no less insidious for it,” he wrote, adding that these manifestations must be viewed in the context of a broader pattern, one that connects physical terrors like “fire hoses and police dogs” to the quieter menace of “invisible ink” and “coded language.” As happy as the racists are to have us notice that they are now and then communicating their solidarity with an otherwise innocent hand signal, they are likewise daring us to ignore it, allowing them to continue advertising their bigotry in public without consequence.

In this tug of war, there are some who say, It’s not theirs. That extremists and shitposters can’t help themselves to any old artifact unless we concede to their framing of it. I’m not so sure it’s feasible to wrest back control of a thing that has no owner, let alone copyright. Rather than arguing what it does and doesn’t mean on Twitter — a largely fruitless exercise — we can try to demonstrate its positive merit in real life. Use it or lose it, in other words, and in a way that leaves no doubt of its wholesomeness. Fill your days with the good kind of “OK” symbol, and we may be able to forget that a paltry band of disgruntled goons tried for years to steal it from us.