Despite another round of viral reports alleging the contrary, the OK gesture is not a racist symbol of white power—nor is its emoji form, 👌 OK Hand. Let’s clarify what the 👌 OK Hand emoji is and is not, and how it became falsely associated with white supremacy.
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.
Do be mindful some individuals—whether members of the alt-right, internet trolls, or others caught up in the hoax—spread the notion of the OK gesture as a white power symbol, to outrage people, or otherwise attempt to give it legitimacy.
On its own, however, 👌 OK Hand, is just that: 👌.
In publishing this article, we are aware of how discussing attention-seeking efforts such as the ‘white power OK sign’ can inadvertently spread the very narrative further than its natural reach would otherwise achieve.
Attention is exactly what the individuals behind this sign crave and so for every tweet or news report that so much as raises white power as an alternative meaning to the OK gesture, this is seen as a victory to those spreading misinformation.
Do note that some will use this gesture in bad faith. Key methods of doing this may involved using the OK gesture in specific public contexts as a racist dog-whistle, or to do the opposite and claim complete ignorance on the matter and belittle those pointing out these dog-whistle uses.
Engaging from either side of the issue is not recommended as both the message that "this is a white power symbol" and "this is not a white power symbol" spread the same core idea of associating a widely acceptable gesture with a hateful movement. Those acting in bad faith will be content to both spread the idea of this alternative meaning while simulaneously ridiculing those who condemn it.
On balance, it’s a tough call to make, but I feel that those looking to Emojipedia for clarification on this symbol deserve an explanation as best and most sensitively as we can provide. — Jeremy Burge, Emojipedia Editor in Chief