Should I stop my kids doing the OK sign/gotcha sign?
December 27, 2019 5:29 PM   Subscribe

My kids are tweens and we don’t live in the USA. My daughter does the “gotcha” version of the sign, most recently in extended family Christmas photos. Should I tell her it’s been stolen by white supremacists and ask her to stop?

She is 100% just doing it as funny and “circle game” etc. I feel miserable and over-thinky even asking. We’re white. We do live in a country where a high-profile criminal has flashed the sign in photos. For some reason having her do it in photos bothers me the most. I know folks argue about if it’s a “thing” and I worry the interpretation will consolidate in future and the photos will look worse.
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (40 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Should I tell her it’s been stolen by white supremacists and ask her to stop?
No. Don’t give up your symbols bc some assholes use them too. Abandoning normal/non-racist use just gives them more power.

Way back when I was an undergrad some unsavory groups tried to claim wearing jeans as a sign of solidarity. We all just laughed but I sometimes wonder how it would look for thousands of people to give up jeans because some racists said jeans were their symbol.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:44 PM on December 27, 2019 [16 favorites]

Will your daughters spend much of their lives in English-speaking places where US culture is widely known? Are these pictures going to be on the internet? It would be inconvenient to them to have a bunch of photos floating around where they make white supremacist symbols if they were, eg, looking to study in the US later on.

How would they feel if they knew about this? I know that I would have been disturbed as a kid if I'd been doing something I thought of as cute in photos only to discover that it was really the Nazi salute. If they spend much time online in US-influenced spaces, eventually they're going to figure out that they've been making Nazi signs in photos.

I mean, this is the same sign that the Christchurch shooter was using in the courtroom, so it's widely known in the Anglosphere at least.

Honestly, I'd bring it up unless they're really unlikely to encounter a lot of US-based media in the future, because they're going to feel weird about it later themselves. This whole fascist white supremacist thing isn't going to fade away like it's some fad.
posted by Frowner at 6:00 PM on December 27, 2019 [27 favorites]

I would tell her about the current use and ask her to stop. This is a widely-used white supremacist, in-group hand gesture. The fingers are supposed to symbolize the "W" and "P" of White Power and is widely used by people who proclaim white supremacist ideals. Playing the circle game is often used as an excuse for using this gesture, but that's largely just a way to hide if people don't want to get into trouble for flashing the white power gesture.
She should be aware that this is a hurtful symbol and that using it could lead to her being mistaken for sharing those ideals and could hurt people who are victims of white supremacist bias and violence. If I saw a young person using this gesture, I'd immediately assume that they share racist ideals, even if they're not living in the USA. The internet has made this gesture gain international traction.

Why not just switch to the two fingers in a V which is widely known as the "kawaii" sign meaning "cute" from Japan.
posted by quince at 6:00 PM on December 27, 2019 [25 favorites]

Not overthinking at all. I'd ask her to stop.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:08 PM on December 27, 2019 [10 favorites]

But the OK sign is not a nazi salute, it has a long history of benign usage for some 2,500 years before some hateful asshats decided to use it for their own purposes.

Give up your symbols to racists if you want, but do so with your eyes wide open to the power you are granting to your enemy.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:08 PM on December 27, 2019 [40 favorites]

Swastikas also had a long history of benign usage pre-Third Reich, and I wouldn't call them redeemed for modern usage yet, even if some people are trying to distinguish the use of the black hakenkreuz from swastikas drawn in other colors, directions, and contexts. I'm not sure how one would reclaim using the OK symbol as a white person not identifying as a white supremacist because it being a white supremacist symbol *is* the broader Anglosphere understanding of it in 2019.

Like, if you're not visibly white, maybe you have an argument for being able to rehabilitate it with your personal usage because you'd be interrupting the white supremacy assumption of the gesture by being visibly other. But if you are white and throwing up that symbol ... I mean, it's not like hand gestures have universal meanings. But I can say that my American friends and family have stopped using it because they don't want to be mistaken for white supremacists. And presumably these Christmas photos are either digital originals or are likely to be the kind of thing that gets digitally passed around on social media; there's no controlling their context once they're out there.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 6:32 PM on December 27, 2019 [17 favorites]

I think the answers above are overlooking the important context that OP's daughter is making the sign as used in the "gotcha" game (also known as the circle game). In my opinion, this is completely fine and there's little chance that it could be mistaken for or co-opted as a white power symbol. In particular, the OK sign when used as a white power symbol is almost always made with the fingers pointing up, while the sign used for the circle game is almost always made with the fingers pointing down.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 6:41 PM on December 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

Yeah, personally I don't think it's as clear cut as if your kid were flashing a Nazi salute. On one hand, yes, its white supremecist connotations apparently only started in 2017 as a hoax on 4chan, and on the other, as responses here show, there will be people who immediately think of those white supremecist connotations in any context. Maybe you and she can read the Anti-Defamation League's post about it together and use that as the basis of talking about whether she ought to stop? I think they have a good point when they write, "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" - but again, different people will read it differently.
posted by DingoMutt at 6:43 PM on December 27, 2019 [10 favorites]

Last I heard, the 'v' sign, if done the wrong way, codes as 'f-u' in the UK.

In a multi-cultural world, any gesture at all can be problematic, even 'thumbs up' or 'we're #1'. I strive to avoid all gestures beyond waving, smiling or the seemingly British convention of 'non-judgmentally pointing to the celebrity I just ran into' in any publishable photos.
posted by zaixfeep at 6:44 PM on December 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don't know how old you are all, but this is straight up 4chan manipulation.

They started it a few years ago.

It started first with "The Game". Meaning if you made an OK sign below your waist and got a guy to see it, you got to punch them in the arm. That's been a thing since I think the 60's? Not sure. It was common knowledge in the early 80's in my little rural town in Iowa.

"Oh I forgot my pocketknife, but what the heck is this in my pocket? "OK sign". Then you punch every guy in the arm that looked. Thems the rules.

A few years ago 4chan decided to make that a white power thing. It's entirely a meme writ large. It's entirely made up. They decided to take a normal gesture and make it horrible. That's what they do.

No right thinking person thinks the OK sign is a white power thing.

This is entirely an internet thing people don't get.
posted by sanka at 6:53 PM on December 27, 2019 [39 favorites]

That is the number nine in ASL and the letter F in the sign alphabet. No way I'm going to stop using it.
posted by Fukiyama at 6:57 PM on December 27, 2019 [37 favorites]

A lot of comments here seem to be addressing the question "Is this a big deal?", "Should they care?", or "Should I make them stop?"

But you also asked "Should I tell them?"

Yes. You should tell them. Whether they should stop is a complicated issue. Whether you should try to make them stop is too. But they're old enough that there's no downside to them knowing about the situation.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:13 PM on December 27, 2019 [54 favorites]

While it’s frankly shitty that in a communications environment where dog-whistle signalling and memetic sloganeering exist you can wind up accidentally amplifying and legitimizing political positions you don’t even realize exist that is nevertheless where we are. Welcome to 2020; come for the synthwave, stay semiotic trench warfare.

I think the right thing to do here is to talk the kids through your position, that you think this is a problem and why, and help them understand that symbols can change their meanings over time and depend heavily on their context to be understood, and then tell them that you trust them to understand the impact of their actions and make the right decisions.
posted by mhoye at 7:45 PM on December 27, 2019 [13 favorites]

The vast majority of people using the "ok" sign are using it to mean "ok". If you're gonna say "but NOW it means white supremacy because some jackass used it that way," well, then NOW now it means "ok" again because I just used it to mean that. You don't automatically default to the meaning assigned by a tiny group of the worst people you can find; everybody else gets to decide, too.

We're either gonna all quit wearing shoes when they announce "shoes mean white power!", or we're gonna decide not to cede cultural control to a handful of halfwits.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 8:00 PM on December 27, 2019 [27 favorites]

I am firmly on team “fuck them and their horse.” It will be a cold day in hell before I cede control of my behavior to a bunch of wankers on the Internet.

As another poster said, no problem mentioning that there are said wankers making said claims, but what are the woke of the world going to do when the white supremacists claim “not kicking cops in the groin” is the new Nazi salute?

Gay culture had a tremendously great idea when they claimed “queer” as a badge of honor. I say, “circle fingers proudly!”
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 8:11 PM on December 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

On review, Sing or Swim said it better.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 8:13 PM on December 27, 2019

No right thinking person thinks the OK sign is a white power thing.

This is entirely an internet thing people don't get.

Yeah, I mean this seems like the "gang members murder people who flash their brights" of 2019. Lots of rumor but little to no credible evidence of it happening in real life.
posted by fshgrl at 8:22 PM on December 27, 2019 [10 favorites]

This hand gesture has broader and different meanings, depending on where you are. From Wikipedia,
While widespread use of the OK gesture has granted it an international connotation of assent, it also bears negative, vulgar, or offensive meanings in many regions of the world. In contrast to Japan's use of the expression to represent coins and wealth, the gesture's "O" shape stands for "zero" meaning "worth nothing" in France and Tunisia. In many Mediterranean countries such as Turkey, Tunisia, and Greece, as well as in the Middle East, parts of Germany, and many parts of Latin America, the gesture may be interpreted as a vulgar expression resembling a human anus, referring to sex, either as an insult ("You are an asshole"), or a homophobic reaction to a symbol of homosexuality and the act of sodomy. In Brazil it can be synonymous with giving someone the middle finger.
So, should you tell them about this also? Since the tweens in question aren't in the US, I should think knowledge of these alternate (and perhaps local) meanings could be way more important to their very survival abroad.

Also, scroll down in that Wikipedia entry, if you want to know about this Circle Game.
posted by Rash at 8:30 PM on December 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

Don't LET them steal it.

Here, let's steal it back:

The "OK" symbol is this moment being appropriated by me, you, and everyone, for inclusiveness and diversity:

Inclusiveness the circle part, holding all people inside as part of one family

Diversity: the three extended fingers, radiating out into the world different kinds of gifts from different kinds of people

If you hold this symbol up near your ears, it means we need to listen to all voices.

If you hold this symbol up near your eyes, it means that there are all kinds of beauty in the world.

If you hold this symbol up near your heart, it means that all people matter and are worthy of love.

If you hold this symbol near your pocket or anything symbolizing money, it stands for economic justice for all.

If you hold both hands in this symbol, it means fairness and justice for everyone.
posted by amtho at 9:34 PM on December 27, 2019 [8 favorites]

I used to spend a lot of time on the internet but don’t really anymore. Still keep up with current events and news through email digests and newspapers, etc. but stay off social media. I am left-leaning and exposed to stuff smeared as SJW/“woke”... and I still had to look up what you were talking about because I had no idea what this is. It probably is not a thing worth really calling attention to, unless you suspect she’s hanging out with assholes online and doesn’t get it.
posted by stoneandstar at 9:40 PM on December 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

If they were in the US, I’d definitely say:

Yes, you should tell them.

POC here. If I saw a white person flashing the OK sign, I would immediately be on guard and assume that there’s a good chance that they’re a white supremacist.

And if they continued to flash the OK sign despite knowing its context, I would be especially skeptical of them, whether or not they’re a white supremacist. I would assume that they’re someone for whom ideological righteousness is more important than considering the experiences of people of color around them.

And if there’s no POC around them, then.....


Since you’re not in the US, it depends (it also depends where you are.) I think this would be a great conversation starter. You could bring up the different meanings of media and symbols - for example, Pepe the frog (in the US and China, for example). Or the history of swastikas.

Ultimately these meanings are social. There’s no “original meaning” to any of these. Racial slurs, slang, memes, are socially constructed and so real. Someone saying “nazis stole the swastika; I’m going to take it back by using it everywhere” doesn’t work because it mistakenly imagines that a historical account is more “real” than the social construction and shifting social consensus that makes very real things like memes, language, literature, marriages, flags, political and religious beliefs, economic markets, fiat currency.

Similarly, it’s very real that in the US (and a bit elsewhere) an OK symbol is a dogwhistle for white supremacy. Its very real that a set of innocent syllables in one language can be a deeply offensive word in another language.

The conversation with your kids might be: if you hurt someone by saying a word you think is innocuous, what do you do? Do you claim that the word is objectively harmless? Or do you try to understand where the other person is coming from?
posted by suedehead at 9:50 PM on December 27, 2019 [44 favorites]

Yes, it’s probably time to find a less problematic sign.

The symbol was already being used in a small way by the white power movement when 4chan got involved. Their campaign to convince the media that it was popular turned out to be self-fulfilling, as the symbol’s use among white power groups has surged dramatically.

It may be unceremoniously dumped when the next fad comes along, or it may be here to stay. Either way there are a wide variety of other symbols your tweens can use that won’t put them in the middle of it.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:13 PM on December 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

No right thinking person thinks the OK sign is a white power thing.

This is entirely an internet thing people don't get.

Yeah, I mean this seems like the "gang members murder people who flash their brights" of 2019. Lots of rumor but little to no credible evidence of it happening in real life.

This is the shooter from Christchurch.

Don't LET them steal it.

It's already gone.

The people who are saying it's benign or not a white power symbol sound like the dude who invented the benign Pepe the Frog. He's trying to legally stop people from using it, but it's not working and it absolutely is a hate symbol right now, whether he chooses to accept it or not.


You should explain to your kid the situation and that people who make the sign right now in still photos are perpetuating its negative connotations whether they intend to or not. In fact, I'd argue that the symbol itself is still fine, but deliberately making it when someone is taking a photo is in fact the problem.

I would also ask your kid why they are making it in photos. If they argue it doesn't mean anything or that it means Okay, say, "Yes, I know what it means, but why are you making it in photos?" I suspect the answer is because other people are doing it and it's funny to trigger people.

When I was a kid (in the 70s), people would call people "fag". I did it a lot. But I literally had no idea what it meant -- I just did it because I saw lots of people using it as a generic insult. When my mother taught me why it was wrong and hurtful, I stopped. I still think of it as a turning point in my life and the start of understanding what empathy is. Teaching your child how this is wrong could be a significant moment in their life.
posted by dobbs at 10:40 PM on December 27, 2019 [61 favorites]

This is the shooter from Christchurch.

Oh, yikes, I had not seen this picture before. I stand seriously corrected with respect to my earlier comment about fingers pointing up or down. I do think a conversation about unintentional harmful meanings is in order now.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 10:49 PM on December 27, 2019 [9 favorites]

Wait, what? If this is the same OK signal taught to every scuba diver then... should somebody alert PADI? Also, apparently it can an insult in Europe, as it's the shape of a sphincter. It might still be a contextually multivalent gesture, for now.
posted by dum spiro spero at 11:12 PM on December 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

I would tell her. I was recently at a formal fundraising gala and I'm not sure what it was about, but the people on either side of me made this symbol as a way to remember how the table was set, and you could tell the people on the other side of the table were dismayed, surprised and probably confused. There is absolutely no way I would ever want have the argument that we are reclaiming this symbol so we can set the table correctly and once I told my friends what this symbol was could be interpreted as, they wouldn't either.
posted by katinka-katinka at 11:16 PM on December 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also am a bit surprised by people who don’t know about the OK symbol. I believe this is a white vs POC thing. I’m on the lookout for the blue lives matter symbols in white spaces, for example, and am very aware of symbols and indicators that will tip me off to how a person or an establishment will treat me. I can tell you that my radar is pretty well tuned to listen to things that my white friends don’t often see.

Wait, what? If this is the same OK signal taught to every scuba diver then... should somebody alert PADI?

Well, my friend, of course the signal is contextually multivalent, like the swastika, or the confederate flag, or the American flag, or basically any symbol or semiotic sign ever in the history of signs. So saying “but there are other meanings!” is technically correct, the worst kind of correct ...
posted by suedehead at 1:27 AM on December 28, 2019 [40 favorites]

How often do you need to use the damn OK hand signal? I use thumbs up just as often instead for the same meaning "ok/yes". Tell her to switch for now and why. She's white and a teenager and can learn. I've switched hand gestures for cultural norms and it's hard to learn and then becomes easy.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 2:53 AM on December 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

Regardless of your daughter's intent, you can expect all of these varying and polarized and thoughtful and provocative responses to your question to come into play when people see your family photos. It *will* be what people notice and form opinions/comment about. Personally I would prefer my family photos to inspire compliments about my handsome children and jokes about outdated hairstyles rather than questions about race and bigotry and worse.
posted by headnsouth at 4:13 AM on December 28, 2019 [6 favorites]

Context is key - If I saw it as part of a scuba diving signaling or someone using it in a string of other sign language I wouldn’t be worried for a minute.

It’s deeply problematic in the context of pictures and “the game” via pictures bc you just can’t tell if someone doesn’t know, knows but doesn’t care, or really thinks that white supremacy is a problem.

All these folks asserting that in their opinion it hasn’t been coopted white supremacist must live in pretty and comfortable personally constructed realities. Stephen Miller and Seb Gorka have used it publicly and they are stone cold ethno fascists so you can take your “it’s just a 4chan meme” takes anywhere you’d like.

No one is asking people to rewrite sign language or stop scuba diving. Your daughter things this humor is minor and inoffensive (you provide no other Indication you think she’s being specifically courted by white nationalism) but she’s missing some context.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 4:34 AM on December 28, 2019 [41 favorites]

Fwiw, nearly every sane parenting group I'm a member of has discussed this and decided to tell their kids that the circle game is not okay anymore.
posted by k8t at 5:25 AM on December 28, 2019 [11 favorites]

If my kid made that sign in a context where the meaning was clearly sign language or SCUBA knowledge or “ok,” I might mention the alternate meaning so that he’s aware of the larger adult context, including it meaning asshole in some cultures. I did the same thing when he made the peace sign with his palm facing himself, when he pointed at something with his middle finger, or for that matter when he’s used words with more shades of meaning than he was aware of. It’s possible to do this without it being a punishment or even that big of a deal.

If my kid made that sign in a family photograph, though, I’d be having an extended conversation about where they saw it and why they thought it was appropriate, and I’d be deleting that picture immediately. Language has context and sneaking a symbol into a family picture is usually used to make everyone in the picture look like a fool for not “catching” you, which it seems to be here even without the added symbolism. I’ve never even heard of the circle or gotcha game but have seen plenty of kids ruin pictures with rude hand signs, and I’d assume bad intention from a funny hand shape *even if I didn’t know what it meant*.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:30 AM on December 28, 2019 [12 favorites]

This seems like a great opportunity to have a conversation with your kid about symbolism and intentions. Even if they don't mean it in a white supremacist way, or (worse) if they are aware of the supremacist meaning and are doing it to be funny and/or edgy, they need to know that many other people are going to read it as a supremacist symbol and are going to be hurt by it.

As with all microaggressions (and a lot of macroaggressions), white people need to stop hiding behind the "It's just a joke" and "I didn't know" and "But I didn't mean it that way" excuses. A tween is plenty old enough to hear that message.
posted by basalganglia at 7:29 AM on December 28, 2019 [20 favorites] can just tell your child to stop sabotaging formal annual family photographs with her cutesy acted-out one-woman in-jokes, without having any ideological rationale at all for the request. and you should.

the competing misinformation in various comments above gives me the headache and you would be much better off asserting parental authority than letting yourself in for a similar endless but-actually argument with your own flesh and blood. if you want to have a serious discussion with her about inadvertent symbolic affiliation with the alt-right, do it after telling her to cut this shit out. not before.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:25 AM on December 28, 2019 [10 favorites]

Yeah, as a person of color, I can’t trust it’s done innocently or in reclaiming it. Yeah, people are going to slip up innocently. Yes, it’s used in scuba diving. But no way on earth does that not put me immediately on high alert. Sure, maybe that’s what channers and white supremacists want, but I’m not going to risk my safety to go find out.
posted by advicepig at 8:53 AM on December 28, 2019 [11 favorites]

Unless your daughter was scuba diving while the picture was taken, I would talk to her. She's old enough to know what is funny and what is inappropriate and potentially hurtful. She should also realise that those pictures may come back to haunt her later. At the very least, she was being an asshole towards the other family members in the picture.
posted by Too-Ticky at 9:04 AM on December 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think queenofbithynia nailed the most salient point - whatever it is, it's just not funny.

But I wonder if your misery at confronting her with this is that perhaps it's not Hanlon's razor you're arguing here. Regardless of the meaning of her gesture, she is 100% being provocative in a family photo - but it's 2019, and I'm doubtful that a tween playing an internet game in a country where a high profile criminal has flashed the sign in photos is entirely ignorant of other connotations. As a parent, I understand how hard it is when our children's innocence is at an ebb.

This is a tough age in parenting - wanting to trust that they're navigating the parts of their lives that we don't have control over well - friendships, new systems and technologies, new social norms - while remembering that their prefrontal cortex is the last to develop, and that means their decision-making is made by the part of their brain that rules emotions and instinctive behaviour.

It's just time for a conversation about intent vs impact. She's hopefully mature enough to understand that even discussing how innocent the symbol is as applied is inherently a privilege. She doesn't get to decide that it's harmless. People who are affected by this symbol are speaking up, and we should listen to them.
posted by peagood at 9:25 AM on December 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

We do live in a country where a high-profile criminal has flashed the sign in photos.

Then yes tell her. Also ask her to stop doing it.

Depending on how high profile they are, it's possible that she already knows its current other meaning and thinks it's 'edgy'. If that is the case, really really ask/tell her to stop doing it.
posted by plonkee at 9:30 AM on December 28, 2019

Mom of tween, put me in the 'Yes' column. Kids can understand this stuff. Especially meme cultural and internet virality and coded language and how things are expressed to different audiences. They do it all the time.

All else aside, sensitivity to being certain you are not misunderstood is a thing -- there are words and phrases that technically speaking might be okay if you, say, looked them up in a dictionary. But being 'interesting' or 'right' or 'wrong' isn't as important as making a small gesture to be certain of not being misunderstood and hurting someone.

It's not a good cultural hill to die on. No great loss to replace it with something else and not have to worry about it. We retire words/signals all the time because we're all contributing to an evolving code of understanding each other.

Or, a lot of us are trying to.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:49 PM on December 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

I told my kids (white U.S. tween and teen boys) about it about 18-24 months ago, and we talked about the insanity of its appropriation but also the meaning and message it sends, even unintentionally, to people at the mercy of powerful and racist institutions, systems, and people. We live in a diverse city with a diverse school system that teaches anti-racism and a decolonization lens of history. Nonetheless, our city and systems clearly don't work as well for POC as they do for white people. For that reason, I wanted my kids to know how their actions can be interpreted by their neighbors, friends, and classmates. Also, the teen is on social media and into meme culture, so I wanted to educate him and open the conversation BEFORE other influences outpaced me.
posted by cocoagirl at 1:02 PM on December 28, 2019 [12 favorites]

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