Is The OK Sign the New Swastika?

By Samantha Poteet and Mary Pat Luetke-Stahlman

Symbols are a powerful tool of communication and imagery, each with meanings and ideas of their own. With the increasing visibility of White supremacy on social media and other mediums, it has been observed that some people are using a specific hand gesture in certain contexts without really understanding the modern-day meanings that the gesture has taken on - and for convenience, we will refer to this gesture as the “OK” sign from this point forward. The Deaf Report felt compelled to write this with the intention of raising community awareness in terms of what message is being sent with the “OK” sign.

When a community member flashes the “OK” sign (whether upright or upside down) or plays the “game of poking the hole,” there is no concept of fear or trolling. In the United States, the “OK” sign has become a modern-day signal of White power/supremacy or a “symbol of hate,” according to multiple sources.

Rollin Bishop from The Outline stated, “It's unclear exactly how the ‘OK’ symbol got started as an alt-right meme, but it may trace back to a version of ‘Smug Pepe,’ a meme in which Pepe the frog holds his chin. In one variation Pepe is making an OK hand gesture, reminiscent of Trump

Don Caldwell, a senior editor at Know Your Meme, commented that the “Smug Pepe” meme with the “OK” sign started circulating in online communities amongst alt-right and Trump supporters in early 2015.

First adopted by White nationalists, 4chan trolls intent on “triggering the libs” have taken up the sign and the well-known use points to deeper concerns.

Numerous news sites report that the “OK” sign is associated with negative connotations of White supremacy, and one instance would be Huffington Post.

Last month on May 10, Huffington Post shared that Riley Griser, known as the leader of UNLV Chapter of Turning Point had “a video of him and another woman in bed flashing the white supremacist ‘OK’ sign, declaring ‘White power’ and spouting racial slurs.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center also asked about the meaning of the sign in one of their articles: “Does the sign, the thumb and forefinger joined together in a circle, the remaining three fingers splayed out behind, mean ‘all’s good?’ Or does it mean ‘white power’ instead?”

Matt Furie, the creator of Pepe, was saddened to see that his cartoon has been labeled a hate symbol. “It’s the worst-case scenario for any artist to lose control of their work and eventually have it labeled like a swastika or a burning cross,” Furie told The Guardian.

The swastika has a long history, just as long if not longer, than the “OK” sign. Both of them were used as symbols of good luck and love within the Hindu/Buddhist community, only now to be desecrated at large.

The word swastika comes from the Sanskrit word svastika, which means “good fortune” or “well-being” in Indic. The swastika was first drawn as a hooked cross (shown below) and used in Europe and Asia as early as 7,000 years ago, and some experts speculate that it was meant to represent the movement of the sun in the sky throughout the day. Numerous ancient artifacts from pre-Christian European cultures displayed the swastika and to this day Buddhists, Jainists, Odinists, and Hindus still consider the swastika to be a sacred symbol (The Jewish Virtual Library).

German archeologist Heinrich Schiliemann first discovered the swastika on the ancient city of Troy, which is located on the northwest coast of Turkey, and he linked it with similar symbols observed on German pottery (The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum). Although Schliemann believed the swastika was a “significant religious symbol of our remote ancestors,” other European scholars and subject matter experts asserted that it was a visual icon of the shared Aryan culture that spread across Europe and Asia, as well as German nationalist pride (The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum).

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Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party formally adopted the swastika out of the belief that it was an accurate representation of their Aryan identity and intention for Germany to return to their “pure” roots in a racial context, and far-right nationalist movements also used the symbol (The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum). By the time the Nazis seized Germany, the idea of the meaning behind the swastika symbol changed permanently.

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In the decades since, subculture groups in the United States have used the swastika as a controversial strategy to emphasize their resistance against the status quo such as some motorcycle gangs in the 1950s and some punk rockers in the late 1970s (The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum).

Symbols are everything, some symbols evolve over time as far as their meaning is concerned, and it is critical for members of the Deaf and hearing communities to develop and apply an understanding of the meanings and the ideas behind the symbols.