Here’s Why the ‘OK’ Sign May Not Be OK

A plot line that runs from President Trump’s 2016 campaign to the 4chan imageboard and includes this controversial cast of characters has turned the innocuous “OK” sign into a supposedly sinister signal.

A couple of months ago, a Facebook friend posted an article about four Alabama police officers who were suspended for allegedly flashing a “white power” sign in a group photo.

The story baffled my friend, as it did me, because the sign in question was the innocuous hand gesture that means “OK.” Since when did that become a racist signal? The mayor of the town appears not to have cared enough to get a clear answer to that question before suspending the officers.

Now flash forward to this week. Everyone is talking about the supposedly implied racism of the OK sign again because it made a seemingly inadvertent appearance at the Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

White House lawyer Zina Bash appears to form an “OK” sign.

A White House lawyer who sat behind Kavanaugh rested a hand on her arm in a way that looked like the OK sign. People who think President Trump is a racist went bonkers when they saw it on television. They saturated social media with conspiratorial accusations, providing a fresh case study into how quickly false information spreads online.

These two “OK” flare-ups in as many months piqued my curiosity, so I scoured the Internet for clues as to how this common, inoffensive communication came to represent something so sinister. It’s a peculiar story with a plot line that runs from the Trump campaign to 4chan, a largely anonymous imageboard known for a mix of Internet pranks, memes and controversies like Gamergate.

The hand gesture of many meanings
But before we dig into the specifics of that tale, let’s explore what most people mean when they form their thumb and index finger into a circle while holding up the other three fingers of the hand.

You might not want to use that OK sign in Brazil, Germany or Venezuela, where similar gestures are considered obscene; in Japan unless you’re looking for a nonverbal way to say “money”; in France or Turkey unless you intend to insult someone; or with people who use sign language because it’s a vulgarity. But the OK sign is so ingrained in many English-speaking cultures that it is incorporated into English-as-a-second-language courses.

It’s basically a way of saying “all is well.”

An episode of “Malcolm in the Middle” featured the circle game.

The gesture has served another purpose since at least the 1980s. It is the decoy in a playground prank called the circle game, where one person forms an upside-down OK sign below the waist to lure other people into looking at it. Anyone who takes the bait — “Made you look!” — gets punched.

The circle game is the most innocent explanation for the sign the four Alabama police officers flashed in the photo that got them suspended. Over the past several years, men have taken their boyhood game online by incorporating it into photos and videos they share with friends. And boys in police uniforms will still be boys.

“Men will find just about any excuse to punch their friends, or in the absence [of] one, concoct an elaborate ruse that allows them to do so,” a writer at the men’s online magazine MEL said.

Unfortunately, the police officers had three strikes against them. They’re all white; they work in the South, which has a long and dismal history of racism; and in our racially charged era, a small but vocal minority of Americans is constantly on the prowl for racial wrongs, both real and perceived. With social media as their megaphones, they can make viral messes of the lives of all who offend their sensibilities.

Four police officers in Alabama were suspended for flashing an allegedly racist sign in this photo. The more trusting explanation is that they were playing the online version of the circle game.

They tried to do it to Zina Bash, the lawyer caught on camera behind Kavanaugh — and, through guilt by association, to Kavanaugh himself. Bash is half-Mexican, half-Jewish and the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. But even after defenders like her husband, U.S. Attorney John Bash, called attention to that background, haters clung to the belief that she flashed the OK sign to endorse white nationalism.

The makings of a maddening meme
Which brings us to the etymology of that modern-day, suspicious reading of the OK sign. How did we get from “all is well” to “all is racist”? The short answer: Blame it on the presidential rise of Donald J. Trump.

As recounted at the website Know Your Meme, here are some of the key developments in the story:

  • On April 9, 2015, social media celebrity Pizza Party Ben posted a photo of himself making the OK sign, with the caption “White guys be like.”
  • Milo Yiannopoulous, the “pretty, monstrous face of the alt-right,” joined Pizza Party Ben in flashing the sign at multiple Trump campaign events.
  • Malik Obama, the former president’s brother, posted a picture of himself in a Trump “Make America Great Again” hat while gesturing OK. He included the caption “I look like Pepe the Frog,” the name of a cartoon character that many people now associate with white supremacy.
  • Conservative bloggers Jim Hoft and Lucian Wintrich signed “OK” from behind the podium in the White House press briefing room.
  • And White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, a divisive figure in the debate over immigration policy, was accused of subtly using the OK sign as a signal to white supremacists.
Bash intentionally used the OK sign once to thank a Senate staffer.

That’s about the time the 4chan community entered the picture, adding a measure of mischief to a racially explosive series of events. They launched a hoax campaign called “Operation O-KKK,” a play on Ku Klux Klan, in an attempt to incite liberal outrage. The pitch went like this: “We must flood Twitter and other social media websites … claiming that the OK hand sign is a symbol of white supremacy.”

A year-and-a-half later, Operation O-KKK accomplished its mission at the Kavanaugh hearings. Those targeted by the hoax fell for it by trashing Zina Bash. The controversy inspired a satirical explainer of “common racist hand signals” at The Babylon Bee.

A culture of cynicism
The current twisted take on the OK sign isn’t the only such 4chan hoax making the rounds. The Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism and other expressions of bigotry, has been tracking others, too. “They are a reaction to the surge of media attention given to white supremacy, especially the alt-right, in the wake of the 2016 election campaign,” the league said.

Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the league’s Center on Extremism, was among those who cautioned against jumping to conclusions about Bash’s perceived use of the OK sign. “No one should assume anything about the use of such a gesture unless there are other unmistakable white supremacist signifiers in that context as well,” he tweeted.

Unfortunately, we live in a time where many Americans are either determined to see the worst in innocent hand gestures. Or they fall prey to manipulative propaganda, sensational news coverage or viral “fake news” on social media about such events — a media mix that makes it impossible for people to think the best of their fellow citizens.

That is not OK.

(Correction: Bash’s intentional use of the OK sign the second time was a gesture of thanks to a Senate staffer for fulfilling a request, not to needle her critics over the first false accusation, as I wrongly surmised in an earlier version of this story. Yes, I’m also too cynical! I rewrote the relevant paragraph and a related caption. I should have read more closely one of the articles I linked above.)

Like what you read? Give K. Daniel Glover a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.