The Anti-Defamation League recently added the “OK” hand sign to its Hate on Display database of hate symbols. The addition — part of a total of 36 added to the database — sparked an online backlash from people saying the ADL had overblown what started as an online hoax.
Those decrying the addition as “too far” are missing the point: the ADL isn’t condemning the symbols, just informing readers of other ways they have been used.
Controversy around the “OK” hand sign started in 2017, when a group of people on the social media site 4chan started a hoax to falsely claim the symbol was related to white supremacy. The hoax, originally started in hopes of obtaining an exaggerated response from the media or liberals, was popular — so popular that actual white supremacists began participating.
“Ironically, some white supremacists themselves soon also participated in such trolling tactics, lending an actual credence to those who labeled the trolling gesture as racist in nature,” the ADL says in its database entry on the symbol.
White supremacists who used the gesture sincerely included Australian Brenton Tarrant, who flashed the symbol during a March 2019 courtroom appearance. Tarrant was in court for allegedly murdering 50 people in a mass shooting at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Although it originally started as a hoax, co-optation of the symbol by people like Tarrant is important to note in databases like the ADL, which is meant to be a comprehensive resource.
But the ADL isn’t saying the “OK” hand sign is inherently racist, since intent is just as much a part of symbolism as the symbol itself.
“Because of the traditional meaning of the “okay” hand gesture, as well as other usages unrelated to white supremacy, particular care must be taken not to jump to conclusions about the intent behind someone who has used the gesture,” it says on its website. There is also a sweeping disclaimer on the site to look at context in addition to the symbol itself for all database entries.
The Ku Klux Klan uses burning crosses as part of its symbolism and intimidation, but this doesn’t affect its importance to the Christian community. No one suggests Christians change their symbolism because a minority have adopted it in bad faith.
Similarly, some parts of Norse culture have been adopted by far-right groups, far more heavily than the “OK” gesture. Still, an ADL database entry for Thor’s hammer warns that context matters.
Symbols only have the power we choose to give them. While people use this idea to push back on having the symbol included in the database at all, pretending the gesture has always been used innocently is ignoring actual events. The “OK” symbol isn’t always used by white supremacists, but it has been.
So, no, the ADL isn’t saying that using the “OK” hand sign is automatically a sign of racism. It’s saying that symbols have different meanings depending on context and place value in knowing the depth and facets of even commonplace symbols.
Innocent symbols are innocent until they’re not. We should know when they’re not.