This Hand Gesture Is Not Always 'OK.' It Depends on Intent, Culture

 

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek October 9, 2019
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​A Universal Orlando actor dressed as the character Gru from the "Despicable Me" movies was fired last week for making a hand gesture that is used by white supremacists and other extremists and considered a symbol of hate.

The gesture in question was used during a photo with a black child at the park. The park employee formed an upside-down OK gesture with his fingers. The three fingers supposedly represent "w" for white and the OK circle for the top of "p" for power. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) recently added the symbol to its hate-symbols database.

The topic surfaced in a recent SHRM Connect discussion thread. An HR professional was on the phone when she was interrupted by an employee with a message. The HR professional flashed the OK gesture to indicate she heard the employee, not realizing the gesture could be considered racist. The employee filed a complaint with the HR professional's boss.

Context is important when determining racist intent, a newspaper editorial pointed out when it was bombarded with angry reactions after publishing a photo of a fourth-grader, among a group of classmates, dressed as President Trump and flashing the OK symbol.

"The OK hand gesture both is and is not a white power symbol, depending on the intent of the person who uses it," the editor pointed out and cited the ADL:

"Because of the traditional meaning of the 'okay' 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."

Symbols and words do change meanings through the ages and sometimes take on racist tones. In some cases, they have different meanings depending on the culture or geographic region—distinctions that are important for those traveling abroad. In France, the OK gesture has long been considered an insult, indicating the person it is directed at is a "zero" or worthless. It is similarly seen as insulting in Greece, Italy and Turkey.

It is incumbent upon employers to be aware of cultural changes so they can create welcoming work cultures and guard against hostile environments. SHRM Online has collected the following articles around this topic. 

'OK' Hand Gesture Added to Hate Symbols Database 

The OK hand gesture is among 36 new entries in a Jewish civil rights group's online database of hate symbols used by white supremacists and other far-right extremists.

The Anti-Defamation League has added the symbols to its online "Hate on Display" database, which already includes burning crosses, Ku Klux Klan robes, the swastika, and many other of the most notorious and overt symbols of racism and anti-Semitism.
(NBC News)  

Subtle Racism and the Problems It Poses 

When some people hear the word "racism," the subtle forms of bigotry known as racial microaggressions don't come to mind. Instead, they imagine a man in a white hood or a burning cross on a lawn.

In reality, most people of color will never encounter a Klansman or be casualties of a lynch mob. Members of racial minority groups are much more likely to be the victims of subtle racism, also known as everyday racism, covert racism or racial microaggressions. 
(Thought Co.)  

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Building a Diversity Initiative from the Ground Up]  

Speaking Up Against Discrimination and Racism in the Workplace 

How will you speak up when faced with racism and discrimination?

Is there a "right way" to respond to discrimination, racism and racist comments in the office? As a leader, you have to consider carefully the impact of racism within your organization. How you communicate around discrimination will define your impact as a leader ... and as a human being. 
(Forbes)   

Despite Legal Protections, Most Workers Who Face Discrimination Are on Their Own 

Ron Law walked into the breakroom at work one morning and found a noose hanging from the ceiling. It was one of eight nooses that black employees reported discovering at the Austal USA shipyard, according to court filings. 

They were part of a chilling pattern, the workers alleged. But a year after seeking relief through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, they gave up waiting on the EEOC for help.
(Public Integrity)  

Gestures to Avoid in Cross-Cultural Business: In Other Words, 'Keep Your Fingers to Yourself!' 

Gestures are one of the first things to come to mind that can cause a major cultural faux pas. They can quickly sabotage anyone, including the savviest of business professionals. 
(HuffPost)

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