At least, the OK gesture is not intrinsically a racist symbol of white power—nor is its emoji form, 👌 OK Hand.
Like many gestures, 👌 OK Hand has many legitimate uses, but this one also has many layers of use that involve trolling, as well as its use as a hate symbol under the guise of trolling.
Let’s clarify what the 👌 OK Hand emoji is and is not, and how it became associated with white supremacy in the first place.
Meaning and Use
Major vendors display the emoji as a right hand making the OK gesture, in which the thumb and index finger touch in a ring with the remaining digits held upright. While the emoji defaults as yellow, modifiers are available to alter its skin tone.
True to its name, 👌 OK Hand is used to convey the many sentiments of the word OK and its gesture, including acceptance, agreement, approval, assent, likability, satisfaction, and wellness, among others.
In American Sign Language, counting gestures are shown on one hand, with the numbers six through nine communicated by touching a different finger on the thumb. Given this, the number nine is represented by what appears to be the 👌 OK Hand.
The 👌 OK Hand is seen as offensive in some cultures, including in parts of Europe, the Middle East, and South America, due to vulgar associations with the anus.
This gesture is occasionally paired with other emojis, such as 👉 Backhand Index Pointing Right, to suggest sexual acts (👉👌).
The White Supremacy Hoax
The myth of the OK gesture as a secret symbol of white supremacy begins in 2017 as a deliberate effort on 4chan to spread the sign as such. It was chosen in part due to its use by the controversial speaker Milo Yiannopoulos and some white nationalists in support of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election. Its creators also claimed that the fingers of the OK gesture represent a W for white and the ring a P for power, as illustrated below.
Online and at gatherings, some members of the alt-right adopted the OK gesture to signal their identity. Many employed it, though, simply to troll liberals who had come to believe the OK hand was a genuine hate symbol—including using 👌 OK Hand to this end on social media.
The hoax made the news in 2017 after several figures associated with white nationalism were photographed flashing an OK gesture in prominent places, such as the White House Press Room.
In 2018, Zina Bash, an attorney and supporter of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, was wrongly accused of displaying a white power gesture during his Senate confirmation hearings. Following this story, the Anti-Defamation League, which maintains a significant database of hate symbols and tracks extremist groups, clarified that the OK gesture is not a white supremacist hand sign:
It is important to realize that the “OK” gesture is a nearly universal hand gesture and most usage of it is completely innocuous…[T]he fact that white supremacists, the alt lite and many Trump supporters all use the symbol means that one cannot assume that anyone who poses with such a gesture is intending or exhibiting an association with white supremacy. Only if the gesture occurs in context with other clear indicators of white supremacy can one draw that conclusion.
Basically: read the context.
In particular: be cautious around anyone attempting to prove that the 👌 OK Hand cannot be used a symbol of white power. Especially those sending bulk unsolicited links to this article. For some, the power of the symbol is in its ambiguity.
As a Hate Symbol
Do be mindful some individuals spread the notion of the OK gesture as a white power symbol, to outrage people, or otherwise attempt to give it legitimacy.
On the other hand, use of this gesture by those associated with white supremacy has continued over the years since the first version of this article, which gives all meanings equal plausibility - and no way to give a definite answer.
As noted by Abby Ohlheiser in The Washington Post, the multiple meanings result in two possible outcomes:
“People get wrongly accused of promoting white supremacy because of a hand gesture they made and actual uses by attention-seeking extremists can be explained away as misinterpretations of something more innocuous”
So when it comes to 👌 OK Hand:
- Consider the context of its use, both in emoji form and real life
- Usage of gestures can change over time, and varies by region
- There is no one meaning for any gesture, especially not this one
On its own, 👌 OK Hand, is just that: 👌.
This article has been updated in 2020 to reflect the changing use of this emoji. Additional context has been added to note bad-faith arguments that attempt to disguise genuine uses of this as a hate symbol under the guise of trolling or jokes.