When a North Vancouver Island cleaning franchise Men in Kilts, created a local advertisement, little did they know that an OK gesture made by an employee in the picture would be the subject of a ‘white supremacist’ controversy.
In the picture, the individual is seen posing along with his colleagues, atop a van making the upside-down OK gesture.
Until that morning, neither the employee nor Men in Kilt’s general manager, Chris Strong, knew that among all other meanings that the OK gesture carried, white supremacy was an interpretation.
The advertisement flyer was distributed along with local newspapers on the Island, including the Campbell River Mirror. Neither Black Press nor the Mirror was involved in any step of creating the advertisement which Men in Kilts distributed through the papers.
The picture was criticized on social media for propagating a white supremacy agenda with certain people even demanding the advertisement be pulled out. Residents even called up the Mirror to protest about the advertisement and demanded a retraction.
In 2019, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a Jewish civil rights organization added the gesture along with 36 other symbols to its ‘Hate on Display’ database which tracks hate groups to spot potential warning signs of antisemitism and extremism.
However, given the long history of usage and multiple associations of the OK gesture, ADL had stressed the fact that context is always key to determine if the gesture is “hateful” or “harmless.”
In this case, when the Mirror spoke with the employee, he said that the gesture was an inside joke involving the once-popular ‘circle game’ that the he played with his childhood friends while growing up on a reserve in Prince Rupert.
The ‘circle game,’ has been around as a school prank since the 70s and was made popular through an episode of the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle in 2000.
As per the game, if the person makes the gesture, palm-inward below their own waistline, and gets an opponent to look at it, he gets to punch the opponent in the arm.
“This is a millennial game and I’ve been at it for over 18 years now and it has been a huge part of my childhood,” said the 30-year-old individual who was excited to be featured in an advertisement and used the sign to signal to his friends when they saw it.
He also told the Mirror that it was upsetting to be labelled a “white supremacist” and that people had jumped to conclusions and “ruined things.”
The individual also identified himself to be Indigenous and said that he would never even think of propagating racism or any form of white supremacy.
He has been vocal about his support for the ‘Black Lives Matter’ on social media and ironically he received the call about him being called a white supremacist when he was typing a comment on social media calling out people on racism.
“It makes me mad,” he said about the fact that his circle game gesture was being pushed as an extremely negative act. “It’s not fair.”
Strong also came out in support of his employee and said that the gesture was an innocent expression and far from what it was interpreted as.
“The kid had some game going on with his friend,” said Strong and added that people were blowing things out of proportion.
“I’m disappointed in people who are looking at things that are wrong with the world instead of looking at things that are right with the world,” said Strong.
Strong also said that Men in Kilts is a “multi-ethnic employer” and pointed out that most people in the picture come from diverse ethnic backgrounds. With all those mixed-race people in the advertisement, white supremacy was hardly the message that they were looking to communicate.
Strong also said that they would be cautious about the gesture in the future.
The once innocent ‘OK’ gesture, more commonly used to simply describe ‘all is well’, ‘good’, or ‘superb’ has multiple cultural connotations across the globe.
The gesture first came to be associated with “white power” in 2017 as a hoax. Certain users of an online message board – 4chan – began ‘Operation O-KKK’ to see if they could trick mainstream media and liberals into believing that the gesture was a symbol of white power.
It ceased being a hoax when Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen and other white nationalist started using the gesture as a signal. For these groups, the letters formed by the hand were W and P which stood for “white power.”
The gesture gained more traction in mainstream media after Brenton Tarrant, the white supremacist accused of killing 50 people in a mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand flashed the sign to reporters at his court hearing.