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Sunday Reflections: The Okay Sign, a Game of Gotcha, and a Symbol of Hate, Why It’s Important to Stay Informed

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When I first began working as a librarian, one of my supervisors told me she felt it was important for her staff to read the newspaper everyday. To visit blogs. To thumb through magazines. It was built into part of our daily work because she felt it was important for her staff to be aware of current events, the news, and various moments of pop culture. Over the years, this bit of wisdom has served me well. Perhaps none so much as recently.

Many teens like to play a game where they make what looks like an okay symbol with their hands and if you look at it, they then get to punch you. I have heard this game referred to as gotcha. This hand gesture, the okay sign, has also been co-opted by the white nationalist party. Much like the Swatiska, which had a different meaning before being co-opted by the Nazi party, this hand sign has morphed in meaning. What makes it particularly insidious is that not everyone is aware of the various potential meanings of this hand gesture, which can put those of us who work with teens at a serious disadvantage.

Is that an OK sign? A white power symbol? Or just an online troll?

A few weeks ago, one of the teen library pages I follow uploaded a picture of their Teen Advisory Board. Brimming with pride, as they should be, this library shared this picture on Facebook and I was immediately alarmed to see a teen in the picture making this symbol now associated with white nationalism/pride. I immediately sent them a “just in case you aren’t aware” message, because I wanted them to avoid the media firestorm that could potentially happen. Just in case you aren’t aware, I told them, that hand sign is now considered a sign of the white pride movement and I would hate for you to keep posting this picture and possibly get into a lot of trouble for doing so.

The teen librarian and I conversed back and forth briefly. They had no idea that this hand gesture could potentially mean that and felt that her kids were just partaking in the gotcha game, which is of course a strong possibility. But the truth is, despite the teens intentions, sharing that picture far and wide on social media was inviting a PR nightmare. So the picture was edited so that none of the teens hands were showing.

A lot of things happened here. I just happened to be online when the picture was posted and saw it pretty quickly. I just happened to know the potential controversy that this picture could have caused. And when I privately contacted the librarian, they also just happened to be online right then.

Shortly before this had happened, there had been a couple of other incidents of schools posting photos with students engaging in white nationalist behavior and there was a justifiable firestorm that erupted as a result. Reading about these two incidents in the news made me aware of the hand gesture itself and I had seen first hand the very real social media push back that happened in their wake.

Urban Dictionary: The Circle Game

One of the things that makes the hand gesture so insidious is that because they are co-opting an existing hand gesture, and something that is such a popular game among a lot of teens, it does put a lot of naive and innocent people at risk. It also gives offenders plausible deniability should they get called out. Take, for example, the recent picture from Baraboo. There were multiple students making the Heil Hitler salute, which has undeniable meaning to us. We instantly recognize it as being a form of hate speech. But also in that picture you see a young man making the “ok” sign below the waist. In context, it would be hard for him to say that he was playing a game of gotcha because everyone around him his doing the Nazi salute, but if you are posting a picture of a teen group standing with their arms at their sides and only one teen in the group is making the hang gesture, it’s hard to know what their intentions are. But it’s important that we know what the possible meanings of this are to help prevent us and our libraries from being accused of supporting or promoting white nationalism. One of the other important things that a previous supervisor taught me is that my goal is to make sure that I don’t set the library up for bad PR.

I’m not sharing the Baraboo photo here, because it can be upsetting for many to see the Heil Hitler. There is an article discussing the photo here that you can read.

Please note, Snopes currently lists the ok sign as a white power hand sign as unproven. Other online sites also list it as being unproven. But there is reason to believe that it can be a symbol of white power, and that alone should give us all pause in how we approach it.

I had several takeaways from this. One, my previous supervisor was 100% correct, we should make it a part of our daily mission to be aware of what is happening in the world all around us, it makes us better at our jobs. And two, we should make sure everyone on our staff is aware as well. It’s pretty common for libraries to post pictures of program attendees online as part of their promotions, but I hope that we are all doing our due diligence in making sure that everything about those pictures represents as message we are comfortable putting out into the public. Just a month ago, I would never have thought twice about the picture that I had seen, but with a little more knowledge and awareness, I was alarmed and wanted to help prevent my fellow librarians from the social media backlash that was sure to occur if they left those pictures up for very long.

ADL: Hate Symbols Database

One final thing I would like to note about this. On Thursday, a brutal attack on two Mosques in Christchurch happened. It was horrific in every way and resulted in the tragic end of multiple lives. Upon arraignment while entering a plea, the offender in these attacks was photographed making this very hand gesture. It is doubtful that he was referring to a childish game of gotcha. We all need to be aware of this and other symbols associated with white nationalism and make sure that we aren’t being unwitting purveyors of this hateful message.

Comments

  1. I appreciate your diligence in following and describing the grotesque use of this symbol among teens. You are correct that photos which show kids making the signal will represent a horrible image of their community and their library, but it is not just the image and its resulting backlash which are problems. This symbol represents anti-Semitism, xenophobia, hatred of Muslims, and other vile belief systems which can lead to violence. That is the real problem.

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