Explained: The “OK” hand symbol’s connections to white supremacy


A demonstrator waits for the start of a protest in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue late last month. Photo by Matt Rourke, AP News.

Julia Balli, Assistant Editor

In 2019, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) updated its Hate Symbols Database with 36 new entries of Alt-Right symbols and slogans, making the list consist of over 200 meanings 

Among those entered is the commonly used “OK” hand gestureThe “OK” hand symbol started, “as a hoax by members of the website 4chan, the OK symbol became a popular trolling tactic. By 2019, the symbol was being used in some circles as a sincere expression of white supremacy,” according to the ADL website. The ADL website also said, “because of the traditional meaning of the “OK” 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.” Recently on campus, a student organization engaged in using the “OK” hand symbol and later deleted the photo from social media once it was pointed out by a UWL student, but continued to keep the original post and denied all connections to white supremacy.  

“OK” hand symbol. Photo retrieved from Anti-Defamation League.

This symbol has become widely used, even being used by right-wing extremist Brenton Tarrant, who allegedly killed 51 Muslim worshipers in two mosques located in Christchurch, New Zealand. Tarrant was then was seen flashing this white supremacy hand gesture in a courtroom after his arrest.  

The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse has also had a history of incidents and hate crimes revolved around white supremacy. In 2005, [In Wentz Hall] a swastika hate symbol was consecutively engraved over the faces of multicultural individuals on a Black History Month flyer and then drawn on the wall after the poster’s removal,” according to The Racquet Press. The incidents continued into 2011, “hate graffiti was found recently in both Eagle and Wimberly Halls. The images and words in this graffiti clearly conveyed hostility and violence toward members of a particular racial group,” according to an email from Joe Gow that was retrieved from the UWL archives. 

Chancellor Gow’s email to students in response to the hate incident on campus.

In February 2016, a hate incident occurred when students had drawn a black man being lynched by three men in white hoods accompanied by a drawing of a swastika and the words “#blacklivesdon’tmatter” on a whiteboard in Coate Hall,” reported The Racquet Press last spring. In an email sent [in November 2016,] UWL Chancellor Joe Gow said the incident involved vandalism and graffiti on the residence of several UWL students of color. According to an image shared by Gow, someone scrawled go home, followed by a racial slur, on the front door of the residence in black marker,” according to The La Crosse Tribune. 

On Feb. 19, 2019, a hate crime occurred in the La Crosse community that targeted a business owner, the spray-painted racial slur, Sand [N-word] Mike, found on a Muslim-owned local business, Bullet Cab,” according to The La Crosse Tribune. These are just some of the incidents that have occurred in the La Crosse and UWL community, and there are many that may have not been reported. 

During the 2018-2019 academic year, ADL documented 313 cases of white supremacist propaganda on campus, seven percent increase from the prior year. “Overall, the 2018-2019 academic year experienced a 147 percent increase in total reports from the 2017-2018 academic year…Of the 228 incidents received by the Hate Response Team, 192 (approximately 84 percent) happened on-campus as opposed to 56 incidents offcampus or online,” according to the Hate Response Team’s end of the year report for the 2018-2019 year. 

In the 2019-2020 year alone, there have been 100 reports and 91 incidents of hate/bias, according to UWL’s overview of hate/bias incidents. 

 To learn more about hate/bias and how to prevent it, visit the UWL Campus Climate page. If you want to report a hate/bias incident to UWLfile a report here.