Does the OK Sign Actually Signify “White Power,” or What?

The answer is neither simple nor straightforward, which is why it’s such an effective trolling tactic

Emily Pothast
Form and Resonance
Published in
10 min readSep 5, 2018

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When held to the chest with the thumb on top, the OK sign also means “asshole” in American Sign Language. Its ambiguity is precisely why it’s so useful. Credit: Adan Perez/EyeEm/Getty Images

Last April, as you might recall, Kanye West had a bit of a media moment during which he tweeted a photograph of himself wearing a MAGA hat, prompting predictable outrage. (Recently, he issued an apology.)

The photo from Kanye’s viral tweet from April 25, 2018.

What does it mean for Kanye, who once sparked a very different sort of media moment by announcing on live television that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” to appear in a photograph in a MAGA hat with some guy—namely music industry executive Lyor Cohen (more about him later)—flashing the OK gesture?

Well, it’s complicated, which is what prompted Nick Douglas to write this post for Lifehacker back when it happened. To help explain why some people thought that flashing the OK sign in this photo was such a big deal, Douglas dug into the history of this hand sign as a meme:

Some time around 2015, the OK sign became popular among Trump supporters. Know Your Meme gives a meticulous history, showing its use by figures like Mike Cernovich (a brain-pill salesman who believes Hillary Clinton ran a pedophile ring out of a pizza shop) and Milo Yiannopoulos (who swears he’s not a neo-Nazi but surrounds himself with neo-Nazis). Both of these men famously thrive on publicity and controversy, which explains a lot of what happened next.

The “what happened next” is that people started associating the hand sign with white supremacy, and not unreasonably. As Douglas points out, on election night back in 2016, open white supremacist Richard Spencer tweeted a photo of himself flashing the OK sign in front of a Trump International Hotel with the caption “Tonight’s the night.”

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Emily Pothast
Form and Resonance

Artist and historian. PhD student researching religion, material culture, media, and politics. emilypothast.com