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
Sep 5, 2018 · 10 min read
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.)

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.”

On February 13, 2017, Gateway Pundit founder Jim Hoft and alt-right troll Lucian Wintrich were photographed giving the OK sign from the White House press briefing room. The watchdog group Media Matters called it a “hate symbol,” noting its established association with Pepe the Frog memes.

Media Matters called the OK sign a “hate symbol” on February 13, 2017, two weeks before the oft-cited “hoax” post appeared on 4chan.

Two weeks later, an anonymous post appeared on 4chan detailing “OPERATION O-KKK,” the intentional use of the OK sign as an ironic meme designed to “force” leftists to dig themselves deeper into “lunacy,” “until the rest of society ain’t going anywhere near that shit.”

The 4chan “hoax” post was made on February 27, 2017. Two weeks before this post was made, Media Matters had already called it a “hate symbol.”

A lot of people mistakenly think that the alt-right use of the gesture originated with this 4chan hoax. But by the time this post was made in February 2017, the OK sign was well established as a far-right meme. The 4chan post is therefore evidence not of the creation of a hoax ex nihilo, but an instance of obfuscation, generating confusion over the origins of a preexisting phenomenon. Given the timing, it’s not unlikely that tricking people into mistakenly tracing the origins of the meme to the post was part of its intended purpose—we are talking about 4chan, after all. Perhaps the only thing here that can be taken at face value is its intention to bait leftists into acting “crazy” so that liberals and centrists will keep their distance. (More about that later.)

The 4chan post was picked up by the Anti-Defamation League, which unfortunately took it at face value, completely missing the years-long context of the OK sign which had already been established. The ADL published a post declaring the whole thing a hoax which has since been widely cited as evidence that crazy leftists are just seeing things when they point out far-right uses of the meme. But the ADL post is missing key information — that the OK sign had acquired a far-right connotation and had even been identified as a “hate symbol” before that 4chan hoax post.

In September 2017, philosophy scholar and YouTube star Natalie Wynn, aka ContraPoints, made this excellent, informative video about tactics used by the alt-right. The whole video is well worth a watch, but the part about the OK sign starts at about 10:10:

Nazis have always taken an interest in occult symbols, like the black sun, or the swastika. But more obscure symbols can be useful as a kind of secret handshake that lets Nazis recognize each other without normies taking notice. The best symbols to use for this purpose are ones that are not primarily associated with fascism, or at least have some other meaning, such as the othala rune, or the iron cross. Better still are symbols that, until adoption by fascists, are completely innocuous. Modern fascists have taken to using almost arbitrary emoji as a way to wink and nod at each other, notably the frog, after Pepe, the milk, and the OK sign.

“Another advantage of using innocuous symbols,” Wynn continues, “is that when leftists try to point those symbols out, the fascists can always say, ‘These gullible SJWs now think that even the OK sign is racist. Is there anything they *don’t* think is racist?’”

Without a doubt, the plausible deniability is a huge part of why these symbols are used in the first place. After the image of Kanye in the MAGA hat went viral, Lyor Cohen denied that his hand gesture in the photo had anything to do with the hat. For him, the gesture represents his media management company 300 Entertainment, and indeed, there seems to be evidence of him doing the hand sign in other, more innocuous circumstances. After all, there’s nothing about this gesture which makes it *necessarily* indicative of anything. The OK sign has meant “OK” since the 19th century, and there are photographs of all sorts of people doing it in all kinds of circumstances. This is why it’s such a slippery tactic when employed by Trump supporters and members of the alt-right—and why context is crucial.

The dynamic described in the ContraPoints video has played out many times since it was posted a year ago, and each time has gone almost precisely as scripted. When White House intern Jack Breuer was photographed making the OK sign in his class photo, his response was that he was simply copying the president, who often touches his thumb to his index finger for emphasis while speaking.

Breuer’s “apology” includes something else that has become common in far-right defenses of the OK sign: the invocation of his own Jewish heritage as evidence that he cannot possibly be a white supremacist—as if Stephen Miller, one of the principal architects of Trump’s border separation policy, did not also have Jewish heritage. (Make no mistake: Jewish and non-white people who are willing to sell out immigrants, refugees, Muslims, and Black Lives Matter activists are not only welcome in many of today’s far-right movements, they are prized for their ability to legitimize those movements by giving them more mainstream appeal.)

Speaking of Stephen Miller, he has also been photographed with his hands in an OK sign, most notably in this photo, which some observers thought resembled the “white power” hand signs thrown up by members of actual white supremacist gangs.

Not surprisingly, the reaction to this photo was swiftly dubbed a “fake news freakout” by far-right and mainstream sources alike. Even Snopes answers the question “Did Stephen Miller Throw a White Power Sign?” with FALSE, citing the Anti-Defamation League’s post that traces the origin of the OK sign meme to the 4chan hoax, completely missing its history prior to February 2017.

(But did we really need a hand sign to clue us in that the man behind Trump’s family separation policy is a white supremacist?)

Four members of the Jasper, Alabama police force make the OK sign in a photo in July 2018.

Miller’s not the only one. This past July, multiple members of the police force in Jasper, Alabama were temporarily suspended for making an OK sign in a group photo. Once again, outlets like Newsweek attributed the outrage to the 4chan hoax post, mistakenly citing the post from the Anti-Defamation League as authoritative. It’s honestly rather astounding how many news outlets have completely missed the fact that the OK sign was being called a “hate symbol” before that 4chan hoax post was ever made, and how many continue to perpetuate this mistaken narrative even though it is easy to refute. (Trolling aside—is this really something we want to see people who have the power to kill us joking about?)

Which brings us to yesterday, when a Trump White House advisor named Zina Bash appeared to hold her hand in a furtive OK sign for an uncomfortably long time just behind Brett Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearing, as if she ware playing a round of the schoolyard “Circle Game.”

As soon as people on social media began pointing it out, Bash’s husband went on the offensive, tweeting that “Everyone tweeting this vicious conspiracy theory should be ashamed of themselves.” Like Jack Breuer, John Bash quickly offered his wife’s Jewish-Mexican heritage as evidence that she could not possibly be involved in hate politics.

Except that we already know that Zina Bash is active in the Trump administration, and this is perhaps where the stunt was most effective. Instead of acknowledging her *actual* politics—working for possibly the most overtly racist administration since Americans literally owned other Americans—leftists, liberals, and centrists got caught up in a circle jerk about whether a hand sign that members of the far right have been using to troll us since at least 2015 has any significance.

As if on cue, headlines from far right and “mainstream media” alike arrived to declare that the whole thing had been a hoax; a cruel attempt by leftist lunatics to discredit Zina Bash, and by extension, Kavanaugh. Breitbart declared, “Deranged left-wing activists and anti-Trump agitators falsely accused Zina Bash, the woman of Mexican-Jewish descent who was seated behind Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during Tuesday’s Senate confirmation hearings, of making a ‘white power sign.’”

Meanwhile, Time’s headline reads: “A Kavanaugh Supporter Was Accused of Making a White Power Symbol. She’s a Descendent of Holocaust Survivors.” Once again, their article cites that post from the Anti-Defamation League as evidence that there’s simply nothing to see here. (Again, citing the ADL post as authoritative, when it lacks key information and is therefore erroneous, makes us what scholars of propaganda call useful idiots.)

So is the OK sign a white supremacist symbol or not? By now, I hope it’s crystal clear that its ambiguity is precisely why it’s such an effective trolling tactic. (For more on the role of ambiguity as a trolling tactic, here’s a post I wrote about alt-right aesthetics in the wake of Charlottesville.)

When successful, this kind of trolling makes otherwise credible journalists and public intellectuals look like buffoons, either by overreacting to an ambiguous stimulus or by missing the whole context of the gesture, as Time and other outlets appear to have done.

The point of this exercise may very well have been to get the people who noticed it to freak out, and then get everyone else to paint them as crazy—and to mistrust our own judgment as well as the judgment of those we rely on for information. By that measure, it was a success, and ultimately that success is what prompted me to write this. I wanted to put all of this information in one place so that it can be easily accessed by people who haven’t necessarily been following the alt-right memeverse so that we can all make more informed moves when it comes to stunts like these in the future.

But ultimately, none of us needed a hand sign to tell us that a woman who reportedly helped Stephen Miller draw up Trump’s immigration policy is a danger to vulnerable people. This is precisely why we must continue to view any attempts to paint members of the far-right as innocent victims with a healthy dose of skepticism.

“zina bash is either a white supremacist because she threw the white power sign or she is a white supremacist because she has devoted her life to working for people that are pushing white supremacist agendas. take your pick.”

— twitter user @maninthehoody

UPDATE: 9/7/18: Since this post was published, she did it again. Is she trolling, or was it an innocent gesture? Because the OK sign is so ambiguous, there are people who will still argue the latter. If it was indeed intentional, then the ensuing argument is definitely part of the point.

UPDATE 3/18/19: This post has been getting a ton of hits ever since Brenton Tarrant, the white supremacist terrorist who gunned down 51 worshippers in a New Zealand mosque last week, threw the “OK” sign in court. Tarrant’s use of the OK sign is consistent with the “trolling” history of this gesture, and in line with the “shitposting” tone of his 74-page manifesto, which I wrote about here. Tarrant self-identifies as a fascist and has blood on his hands to prove it. At this point, anyone continuing to insist the OK sign is just a “joke” is participating in a movement that now includes at least one racially/culturally motivated mass murder.

Form and Resonance

New media ride on ancient pathways. Let’s make a map!

Emily Pothast

Written by

Artist and historian. PhD student researching religion, material culture, media, and politics. Bylines at The Wire Magazine, Art in America + more.

Form and Resonance

New media ride on ancient pathways. Let’s make a map!

Emily Pothast

Written by

Artist and historian. PhD student researching religion, material culture, media, and politics. Bylines at The Wire Magazine, Art in America + more.

Form and Resonance

New media ride on ancient pathways. Let’s make a map!

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