OK sign labeled hate symbol

Elaine Kim, Executive News Editor

A student wears a lanyard with the OK sign and the words “You Looked,” referencing the “circle game.” In the “circle game,” the OK sign is made below the waist to get friends to notice the sign, resulting in a punch. Photo by Elaine Kim

After receiving a text from his dad about a man who had been removed from a Chicago Cubs game for using a hate symbol, senior Nate Rogers was curious as to what the symbol could be. He watched the video and found himself looking at the OK hand sign, something he had always used for non-hateful purposes.

“I was surprised, then I was confused [when I found out that the OK sign is considered a hate symbol], because why would someone try to spread hate with a symbol I knew as something else,” Rogers said.

According to Lara Trubowitz, education director of the Midwest Anti-Defamation League, the Anti-Defamation League, otherwise known as ADL, is a national organization dedicated to combatting bias, bigotry and discrimination to ensure the rights of all people.

On Sept. 26, 2019, the ADL formally classified the OK sign as a hate symbol. Trubowitz said the OK sign gained new meaning in 2017 when members of the online forum 4chan decided to “troll” what they characterized as “liberal media” with a hoax. This hoax involved members promoting the idea that the OK sign formed a “w” and “p” to signify white power. The goal was to bait liberals and the media into deeming a common image as supportive of white supremacy. Conservative-leaning people also  began to partake in the “trolling” by posting pictures across social media with the OK sign.

Trubowitz said by April 2017, the ADL began to notice an increase in the use of the OK sign within white nationalist circles. It had moved beyond satire and was being treated as a serious expression of white supremacy. White nationalists were using the sign to seek out people with similar beliefs and convey white nationalist ideology. Trubowitz said she believes this shift in use is what prompted the ADL’s decision to name the OK sign a hate symbol.

According to Trubowitz, hate symbols, in general, target and threaten vulnerable communities and carry the belief that white people are superior to others. Hate symbols are designed to signify a shared ideology between those who use them and express the presence of those people within normal communities.

William Eike, assistant principal dean of students, said typically when Glenbrook North comes across the use of a symbol that may be discriminatory to a student’s beliefs or culture, it falls under the student behavior and misconduct policy. Eike said if students use the sign in the “circle game,” they will not face punishment, but will be educated on the sign’s different meanings to prevent further use. If the sign is used against someone’s race or beliefs, it would most likely be considered a violation of GBN’s policy, rather than a hate crime.

“I would look at it more as a school violation of behavior and misconduct, so [the deans] would then work with the student on possible consequences, possible counseling,” Eike said.

According to senior Brayden Roy, naming the OK sign a hate symbol is representative of excessive political correctness and an abuse of the termhatethat will remove power from the term. He said he believes racial slurs or inappropriate actions targeting groups of people can be considered hateful, but not a symbol that has been used in other ways besides hate.

“I use it when I make a 3-pointer in basketball, and I don’t think that signifies white power,” said Roy. “I’m going to continue to use it … because no one controls me, [not] the government, no one.”

Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization focused on civil rights and the monitoring of extremist groups, said context is important when dealing with the OK sign. A person’s identity, history of behavior and potential expression of racist sentiments in the past should be taken into account. Innocent use of the OK sign should not be punished, but the hate symbol label is necessary.

“[The ADL is] raising awareness and people should know about [extremist use of the OK sign],” Beirich said.

According to Eike, GBN pays attention to developments in the news regarding hateful symbols and actions in order to monitor student behavior and create a positive school environment. The deans will usually notify GBN staff if a hateful symbol develops and ask them to notify the deans if they see usage of hateful symbols.

When regulating student use of the OK sign, Rogers said he believes GBN will not be able to distinguish hateful intent from acceptable intent.

“When [a symbol] is used so widely by so many people in one way that’s normal and not racist, and then … a minority of people use it in a racist way … you can’t classify the entire thing to be racist,” Rogers said.