Editorial: It's not OK to let white supremacists take over the OK hand signal

The Times Editorial Board
·3 min read
A window sign in Santee addresses a recent incident where a man wore a KKK hood into a Vons grocery store.
A window sign in Santee, Calif., addresses a recent incident in which a man wore a KKK hood into a Vons grocery store. (Jill Nelson)

No, white supremacists. You do not get to own the hand signal for “OK.” Nor the term 100%.

Swastikas and Nazi salutes and the like are apparently no longer enough for white supremacist groups, which have been co-opting innocent hand gestures, including the venerable OK sign — thumb and index finger touching in a circle with the remaining three fingers extended. The rest of us may not get to tell them what symbols they can and cannot use for their despicable beliefs, but we certainly don't have to cede them exclusive rights to these symbols.

A good example of the problem comes from the game show "Jeopardy!," where contestant Kelly Donohue recently used what looked like an OK symbol, though he said that all he was doing was signaling his three wins. It makes sense — he had previously used one finger for one win, two for two.

But that didn’t much matter to a group of 500 former contestants, who said in an open letter that Donohue's gesture looked like a “racist dog whistle.” It wasn’t enough for Donohue to explain otherwise, their letter said; because of how widely his signal may have been misconstrued, he had to issue “an apology and a total disavowal of any connection to white supremacist doctrines.” He did so.

This wasn’t the first kerfuffle over the OK sign. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation launched a probe after midshipmen and cadets were seen flashing upside-down OK signs at each other during the Army-Navy game. It turned out, after all the fuss, that they were playing a harmless, well-known version of the "made you look" game.

A San Diego Gas & Electric worker lost his job after someone snapped a photo of his hand outside his work truck in what looked like an OK sign.

This gesture is the most familiar but far from the only appropriation made by white supremacist groups. You’d need a pictorial guide to them, and in fact there is one. The Anti-Defamation League lists dozens of symbols on its "Hate on Display" page, which include various configurations of hands and fingers, as well as 100% and the numbers 12 and 13. It’s part of why so many people unknowingly make offending gestures; it’s hard to keep up.

There are in fact times when people do appear to have been flashing the OK sign with hateful meaning and intent, and those intentions should be fought. But we're the ones who have empowered hate groups by being cowed into submission over gestures and symbols that are validly ours.

The OK hand gesture goes back to ancient Greece, when it was seen more as a sign of love. It has had many meanings through time and in various cultures. Let’s not just hand it — along with other finger arrangements or numbers — to a bunch of racist hooligans.

The more we allow fringe factions to co-opt innocuous and popular gestures, the more territory they will happily claim as their own. Witness the swastika, which was a popular and positive symbol around the world until the Nazis appropriated it. Instead of reacting in horror to the OK signal, we should take it back. Make it a symbol of anti-racism and of things being truly OK. 100%.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.