Is It Still Okay To Use The OK Hand Emoji? | Digg (2024)

I've never been much of a πŸ‘Œ user, both in real life and in emoji. So when πŸ‘Œ popped up as a suggested emoji when I was texting a friend last week, I was surprised and frankly, a little startled. My discomfort with πŸ‘Œ had nothing to do with the emoji itself, and more to do with how a once innocuous hand sign is now being spread by white supremacists as a symbol of white power.

While the OK hand sign began to have associations with Trump supporters as early as 2015, its perception as a hate symbol has grown over the past two years to the extent that when Zina Bash, a clerk of Brett Kavanaugh's, appeared to make an OK sign with her hands during the judge's confirmation hearing last month, interpretations that Bash was making a white power gesture went viral on the internet.

According to Brad Kim, head of Know Your Meme, the hand sign now has multiple connotations in addition to its original meaning of "OK." There are those that employ it as a dog-whistle for alt-right affiliations and there are those that use it primarily for its shock value and to troll liberals. Although the OK hand sign hasn't been taken over by alt-right groups to the degree of, say, Pepe, its growing association with white supremacists has prompted Emojipedia, one of the leading online resources on emojis, to recently publish an article declaring that the symbol and its emoji counterpart are not white power symbols.

Underlying Emojipedia's declaration is a sense of urgency and unease regarding the appropriation of a once relatively harmless sign. While emojis have never existed in a political vacuum, as more hand gestures are becoming increasingly politicized, so are the usage of their emojis. Should certain emojis, like πŸ‘Œ, therefore, now be avoided to ward off any possible association with groups such as the alt-right, or should we still insist on using them to prevent these symbols from being entirely subsumed by hate groups?

Before The OK Hand Sign, There Was The Raised Fist

It's worth first noting that the OK hand sign isn't the only symbol that has conflicting political connotations. Before the OK hand sign, there was the raised fist, a gesture that has come to signify both "everything and nothing," as BuzzFeed's Niela Orr has described, since it's been continuously adopted and repurposed by different camps, from Black Power supporters to white supremacists.

Once widely connected with the civil rights movement and the Black Panther party, the raised fist symbol has seen its more recent iterations been utilized by both Trump supporters and anti-Trump demonstrators. The president himself is fond of pumping his fists β€” even on occasions when it's wildly inappropriate. His protestors, on the other hand, have frequently marshaled the raised fist, or at least its emoji form, in demonstrations against the president. In a study done by data scientist Hamdan Azhar, the ✊ emoji is one of the most commonly-used emojis in tweets with protest-related hashtags such as #NoBanNoWall and #WomensMarch, along with emojis such as ❀️️ and πŸ‡ΊπŸ‡Έ.

The fact that one symbol is capable of such elasticity is perhaps unsurprising considering that emojis are a form of language and the meanings of a language shift all the time depending on its contexts and users. Unlike written language, however, the pictorial qualities of emojis have always conferred upon it an additional layer of semantic ambiguity. One of the oldest examples of users trying to parse the specific meaning of an emoji is πŸ™. While Emojipedia defines it as the "Folded Hands" emoji, different users have argued over whether the icon is meant to be construed as a sign of thanks, prayer or, simply, two hands giving each other a high-five. Currently, the πŸ™ emoji's polysemy has won out, and on Emojipedia, all three meanings are listed.

The pictorial qualities of emojis have always conferred upon it an additional layer of semantic ambiguity.

Another interesting example of the confusing connotations surrounding a certain emoji would be πŸ™Œ. After testing how users interpret the emotions and meanings of different emojis, a study from the University of Minnesota's GroupLens lab found that πŸ™Œwas one of the top three emojis that most easily led to misinterpretation.

While the icon is commonly accepted as a sign of celebration β€” when it was approved as part of the Unicode 6.0, it was under the name "Person Raising Both Hands in Celebration" β€” back in 2015, Megan Garber from The Atlantic also crowned it "the most ambiguous" among semantically complex emojis. According to Garber's study on how users were incorporating emojis in their Instagram posts, πŸ™Œ seemed to embody a whole host of differing meanings, ranging from the religious to the frustrated, that went beyond the namesake definition of celebration.

When Appropriations Become Problematic

The ambiguity of emojis is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the vagueness of emojis allows its users freedom in deploying them in contexts that will, in turn, help expand the connotations of these emojis beyond that which was initially intended. On the other hand, the instability of the meanings attached to emojis, or indeed, symbols in general, might lead to appropriations of emojis that are more politically troubling, such as the OK hand sign.

Problematic usages of emojis, however, extend far beyond their appropriation by political factions. The issue of appropriation also includes digital blackface, a practice of non-black people laying claim to a black identity or borrowing images of black people through online media, such as emojis and GIFs. Although the launching of emojis in different skin tones in 2015 was meant as a push towards inclusivity, it has also invited uncomfortable issues about racial identity and the privileges and baggage that come with using an emoji of a particular skin tone.

The utilization of black emojis by white and non-black people is perhaps the most controversial example of this. While perhaps less prevalent than other forms of digital blackface, such as the meming and reaction-GIFing of black people, white people using emojis with darker skin tones is still a phenomenon that exists and which, at the very least, signals a lack of racial awareness on the part of its practitioners. At its very worst, it can be seen as an insensitive action of racism, with non-white users reinforcing their privileges by playacting with black personas.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the equation, there's the question of whether white people should use emojis with lighter skin tones. According to Andrew McGill from The Atlantic, emojis of the lightest skin tone are uncommon on Twitter, despite the fact that Twitter's user base is largely white. McGill, as well as the several white people he interviewed, expressed discomfort at using light-colored emojis, partially because they're afraid the usage of these emojis might be construed as a display of white pride. In addition, there's the fear that when white people use emojis that have skin-tone modifiers, they're co-opting something that was primarily designed to give voice and visibility to people of color.

Co-option seems to be the crux of the issue when it comes to debates about whether or not an emoji should be used. The form by which this co-option takes differs, however, with each emoji. Context is imperative, and the usage of emojis, just like with any form of language or signs, should come with an understanding of a certain symbol's loaded history.

Is πŸ‘Œ Still OK, Then?

So what about the πŸ‘Œ emoji, a symbol that is still currently undergoing fluctuations in its connotations? When the co-option of a certain symbol is still fairly recent and ongoing β€” the Anti-Defamation League, for instance, still hasn't incorporated the OK gesture into its hate symbol database β€” should we err on the side of the caution and avoid emojis like πŸ‘Œthat might attract controversy, or should we assume the stance of websites like Emojipedia and use it consciously and proactively to reclaim the symbol's original meaning?

It is a difficult question, and not everyone I talked to is in agreement with what to do with the sign. Emily Pothast, a politics and media critic who has argued that the OK sign's ambiguity is what makes it such an efficacious trolling tactic, responded in an email that she thinks "the ship has sailed on the OK sign being totally neutral ever again, at least in the West." Pothast believes there is not much of a point to salvage the sign, although she says if people who are the targets of racial hatred wanted to alter or co-opt the sign's meaning, "more power to them."

Mark Pitcavage, an extremist expert at the Anti-Defamation League, says that the tricky issue about the OK hand sign is the more attention we devote to it, the more we're strengthening the trolling usages of the sign. When asked whether he believed that actively using the symbol was a way to defy its white supremacist or pro-Trump associations, Pitcavage replied that he didn't believe deliberate usage of the sign would have much effect on hindering the diffusion of the OK sign's new connotations. However, Pitcavage pointed out that if there were a mass campaign to support an entirely different meaning for "OK," one that perhaps runs counter to alt-right beliefs, such as messages supporting diversity or multiculturalism, and if people were to get on board with that, there might still be hope for the gesture.

John M. Kelly, the writer of Emojipedia's article on whether πŸ‘Œ is a symbol of white power, believes that we shouldn't shy away entirely from using the OK emoji. In an interview, Kelly advocated for continued usage of the sign as a conscious rejection of the symbol's newly-appropriated meanings. "We as linguistic beings do a very good job at dealing with multiple meanings," he says. "I think, one, we should push against allowing white supremacy to be a meaning for the OK hand sign. And then, two, use it as normal and have some faith in human beings as context-reading- and multiple-meaning-capable beings."

"Have some faith in human beings as context-reading- and multiple-meaning-capable beings."

Regardless of their stance of what should be done about the OK hand sign, all the experts I talked to stressed the significance of context. All agree that the gesture alone is not a reliable indicator of whether or not a person is signaling white supremacist tendencies. As Pothast puts it, "It's pretty easy to tell somebody doing a chin mudra during yoga practice from someone throwing an OK sign in a group photo to be an asshole."

However, there are contexts where the OK sign should probably be avoided. Given that most of the controversies have arisen from people making the gesture when being photographed, Pitcavage points out that people who post pictures online of themselves doing the OK sign might risk being identified as white supremacists, even if they had meant for the usage to be innocuous.

David Neiwert, author of "Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump," says that there are definitely contexts in which the OK sign can be read in its original, affirmative meaning. However, he also says, "I think anyone who does not want to be mistaken for a white nationalist would avoid using it whenever there's any room for ambiguity at all. And people who do use it ambiguously anyway are obviously unbothered by the possibility of being mistaken for a white nationalist." To avoid the possibility of misrepresentation, Neiwert says he's likely to use the symbol less.

Right now, there seems to be no clear consensus on what we should do with the OK hand sign in its stage of semiotic transition. And it's important to recognize that the meaning of languages shifts all the time and is determined by social consensus, rather than the wills of a few individuals or the authority of sources like Emojipedia or the Anti-Defamation League alone. I personally would strive to preserve the original connotations of the OK sign by still using it in my personal communications, but am likely to avoid it in situations where there's the potential for misconstrual. And in the near future, if the symbol's white power connotations eclipse its original meaning and there's little to no room of ambiguity left in the sign's interpretation, then that will be a time to stop using it entirely.

It's difficult, however, to foresee the symbol's future. Perhaps in a few months, the hullabaloo surrounding the sign will dissipate and the alt-right will find a new symbol to troll liberals and promote its ideologies. It's just as equally likely that the sign's negative associations will reach a point of no return and become as politically fraught as Pepe. It's hard to say at this point, as the contention surrounding the OK hand sign is still ongoing and its meaning remains in flux. I would say it's best to exercise your discretion when it comes to the sign, but maybe now is not the time to lose our faith just yet, not when there's still an element of ambiguity attached to the gesture. And that, for me, at least, sounds πŸ‘Œ.​

Is It Still Okay To Use The OK Hand Emoji? | Digg (2024)
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