Is This An Innocent OK Sign Or A White Power Symbol?

This post is about Kanye West's week of MAGA. Sorry.

Photo: Kanye West

As you probably heard, Kanye is back on Twitter, this time with a bizarre and escalating series of tweets that seem to endorse weirdo conservatives and even Donald Trump. Every tweet inspires an explainer. Yesterday Kanye tweeted a picture of himself in a MAGA hat, next to a man giving the OK sign. Which is unsettling because the OK sign is kind of a white supremacist symbol.

If you already know the weird and stupid recent history of the OK sign, skip to the bottom. (And if you hate that we're even talking about this, save yourself! Close the tab! Go read about Fortnite or how to set up a threesome!) But otherwise:

Some time around 2015, the OK sign became popular among Trump supporters. Know Your Meme gives a meticulous history, showing its use by figures such as Mike Cernovich (a brain-pill salesman who believes Hillary Clinton ran a paedophile ring out of a pizza shop) and Milo Yiannopoulos (who swears he isn't a neo-Nazi but surrounds himself with neo-Nazis). Both of these men famously thrive on publicity and controversy, which explains a lot of what happened next.

At some point, a lot of people started identifying the OK symbol as a white power symbol. One explanation is that the three extended fingers make a W, and the circle and palm make a P. A thread on 4chan (which is like Reddit but worse) supposedly promotes spreading the "white power" rumour as a hoax. The Anti-Defamation League says the OK sign isn't a white power symbol, using the 4chan thread as evidence.

But as Know Your Meme points out, the 4chan thread didn't appear until 2017, years into the debate. Back on US election day, actual unambiguous white supremacist Richard Spencer (the one who later got punched on TV) made the OK sign outside the Trump International Hotel.

The right-wingers making the OK symbol - the ones who claim they aren't white supremacists - loved the controversy, because hey, it's just the OK sign! How silly to call such an innocent thing racist! Look, liberals and minorities have made this sign!

So alt-righters and Trump supporters started making the OK sign all over the place, then laughing when people accused them of being racist. "Ha ha!" they went. "Joke's on you! I'm not racist! I only intentionally made you think I'm racist!"

White House intern Jack Breuer made the OK sign in an official class photo, while the other 40-odd people in the photo gave a thumbs-up. When the media asked whether he was flashing it as a white-power sign, he tweeted a sarcastic apology:

In some of our intern pictures, I emulated the OK sign the President sometimes makes. That was foolish. I should have listened more closely to the Commander-in-Chief and given the thumbs up.

I'm proud of my Jewish heritage and strongly reject the hateful views associated with racist white power organisations. I would never make common cause with them.

But according to the Daily Mail, Breuer's LinkedIn says he interned for former White House adviser, Muslim ban proponent and career racist Stephen Miller. (Since then, Breuer has apparently scrubbed Miller's name from his LinkedIn.) Miller's long history of anti-immigration efforts are completely in line with the goals of white supremacists.

Naturally, Miller has flashed the OK sign in White House photos - or some kind of weirdo version of the OK sign that looks a lot like a white-power gang sign. Coincidence or dog whistle? The Outline asked several sources and couldn't quite decide.

But whether or not the OK sign ever actually meant "I'm a white supremacist", in the hands of a Trump supporter, it now means "I'm OK with you thinking I'm a white supremacist, for the sake of a joke". That's a bad look. It's pretty hard to insist you're not racist when you are trying to trick people into thinking you're racist.

Of course, some people out there are just innocently flashing the OK sign because, well, it's still also the OK sign, and they never heard differently. Brad Kim, head of Know Your Meme, tells Lifehacker over email:

The OK sign now has a few different meaning for people with different levels of meme/media literacy:

1) those who got the memo (on alt-right association) and now deem it stigma;

2) those who got the memo and now employ it as a dog-whistle; (and revel in the land of plausible deniability as you put it)

3) those who didn't get the memo and continue to use the symbol to mean "it's OK";

4) those who got the memo and saw the diffusion of the sign and now leverage it as a trigger for shock value or device of reappropriation.

All right, so, was the OK sign in the Kanye photo a white power sign? Probably not. But kind of yes. Sorry.

The guy who made the symbol is Lyor Cohen, YouTube's global head of music. A YouTube rep told TMZ that Cohen uses the sign to represent the record label he founded, 300 Entertainment, which signed artists such as Fetty Wap, Hopsin, and Coheed and Cambria. (Cohen was also head of Def Jam in the '80s.) It seems extremely unlikely that Cohen would flash a white power sign.

Of course, it also seemed unlikely that Kanye West would wear a MAGA hat. But there he is, sitting next to Cohen, very possibly recognising what that OK sign would mean to a lot of right-wingers. Brad Kim thinks Kanye knew exactly what he was doing:

With Kanye, I personally think he has always had an acute reading of media and how to manipulate it, and he is bubble-bathing in the ambiguity of the OK gesture to his advantage.

What's the net result? According to the media, this might ruin Kanye's music and legacy but it might not change a thing; this might help or hurt the Republican party; and Kanye does or doesn't have a shot at running for US president.

The OK sign does and doesn't mean white power, a lot of people using it are and aren't Nazis, Kanye does and doesn't support Donald Trump, and all of this does and doesn't matter. What a week.


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