The 'OK' hand gesture is now a hate symbol, but it's also a crucial part of sign languages


The “OK” hand gesture has come under increased scrutiny recently, after the alt-right movement claimed it stood for “white power”. Sign language communities are pushing back to reclaim the sign.

Until recently, the OK hand gesture was exactly that: a-okay. Then the alt-right arrived.

You're probably familiar with the gesture in question: thumb and forefinger meet to form a circle, with the other three fingers extended.

Over the past couple of months, the innocent gesture has been rapidly co-opted by the alt-right movement and turned into a symbol of hate. It began as a hoax, a meme trolls used to garner media attention (as it turns out, when you declare an ordinary, commonplace symbol to have a sinister double meaning, plenty of outlets will breathlessly report on any instance of that symbol being used).

Thanks in large part to that media attention, things have escalated. In March, the man charged with killing 51 people in a shooting at two New Zealand mosques made the gesture while appearing in court. In September, the Anti-Defamation League added the gesture to its database of hate symbols.

In October, an actor at Universal Orlando was fired after making the gesture in a photo with a child. And just this week, a police officer at a Melbourne climate change protest was criticised after being caught on camera making the symbol. (Victoria Police released a statement saying that the officer was gesturing to ask protesters if they were okay).

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These recent incidents have led some people to call for the public to stop using the OK hand gesture altogether. Those calls have been strongly opposed by SCUBA divers, who use the gesture to ensure their mates are still alive underwater, and also by people who are just very attached to signing that they're a-okay.

What hasn't received quite as much attention is the fact that the OK hand gesture is actually a crucial part of sign languages, including Auslan, which is used by the deaf community across Australia.

Within sign languages, a handshape isn't the kind of thing you can simply remove or replace. In Auslan, the OK gesture forms part of many different words, similar to how different letters and sounds are used to form many different words in English.

"Just like words are made up of consonants and vowels, signs are made up of handshapes in specific locations with specific movements," Auslan signer and linguist Adam Schembri explained.

The Auslan sign for "not", for instance, is the "OK" handshape moving away from the body. The sign for "perfect" is the "OK" handshape made with both hands. The sign for "okay" doesn't use the "OK" handshape at all.

For the deaf community, and for others who rely on sign languages, calls to abandon gestures like the OK sign can be deeply frustrating.

"The awareness of sign language is crucial to our capacity to be involved in the community," Deaf Australia CEO Kyle Miers told The Feed.

"If these hand shapes or signs are taken out of use, it restricts our capacity to communicate with each other, which is a shame and a disgrace."

In an effort to raise awareness of sign languages and reclaim the sign as their own, sign language communities around the world have been pushing back against the idea that the the OK gesture is now reserved for racists.

In ASL, or American Sign Language, the gesture looks a lot like the handshape for the letter F. Two weeks ago, members of the deaf community in the US put together a video showcasing all of the beautiful things the sign means in their language.

"The 'F' handshape is being hijacked by white supremacists to represent so-called white power," one person signs in the video. "No way!"

White supremacists aren't the first to claim a particular handshape as their own, though.

"I think we can recall a couple of years ago when Gene Simmons from KISS, the band group, tried to trademark the 'I love you' hand shape as a devil handshape, which was rightly refused," Miers said.

Schembri also remembers quite a few instances where the general public's poor understanding of sign languages has led to signs being misinterpreted as offensive.

During a bushfire emergency in NSW in 2013, an image of an Auslan interpreter raising two middle fingers during a televised emergency briefing was shared widely on social media — as Schembri wrote at the time, the interpreter was likely signing the word available, not "we're all fucked".

"As far as we can tell, the Auslan sign that uses that handshape predates the rude gesture," Schembri said.

Nonetheless, there's still been some pressure to change it, with some Auslan signers creating alternative signs or avoiding using certain words so as not to appear rude.

Schembri told The Feed he thinks that's a shame.

"My response to the hearing community in Australia is sorry, that's how Auslan works," he said.

"I'm a professional linguist, but when I was in Sweden, the word for 'final' is 'slut' and the word for sale is spurt so there were all these signs saying 'slutspurt', and of course I thought it was hilarious." [Note: "slutspurt" actually translates to something closer to "final sprint"].

"Am I going to tell Swedes that they should stop spelling their word for final as 'slut' because that means something awful in English? The Swedes are just gonna say 'get used to it'."

Schembri added that even the OK gesture already has multiple meanings across different cultures. Perhaps the white supremacist movement is unaware that in parts of southern Europe, Brazil and the Middle East, the gesture means something closer to "asshole".

Of course, no one is outright telling sign language communities to change their languages. Beyond the immediate media panic surrounding the alt-right OK, there's still an understanding that context changes meaning.

Signing communities hope, however, that this moment is an opportunity to raise awareness of sign languages, and the people who rely on them.

"Auslan has been around in Australia for 200 years. It's not about to go anywhere, and it's certainly not going to change just because of some fad," Schembri said.

"And who knows, this might be a fad, it might disappear in a few years," he added, pointing out that the gestures for 'whatever' (hands raised to form a 'W') and 'loser' (a finger and a thumb in the shape of an L on the forehead) have largely faded from use.

"Hopefully this white power thing will blow over too."

Updated to amend a Swedish translation error. 

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