Did he intend to flash a white power symbol on live television? Either way, it’s not okay.


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Last Friday afternoon, MSNBC aired a live report of the Coast Guard’s response efforts during Tropical Storm Florence. And, within minutes, Twitter exploded in a different kind of storm over a hand gesture.

White Power? Or just okay?

Let’s fast forward a few days. From Friday afternoon and through the weekend, the media was all over this. Here are two of the headlines:

  1. Coast Guard removes employee from Florence duty over alleged “white power” gesture”
  2. Coast Guard officer makes ‘okay’ sign on camera, gets booted for ‘white-power’ gesture

Each report focuses on the same hand gesture, but with differing takes.

Yes, it does look like an ‘okay’ sign. But, it also looks like a White Power symbol. So, which is it?

It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter because discrimination does not depend on the intent of the harasser.

Think back to Monday’s post about sexual harassment. On Monday, we discussed whether a harasser’s actions offended a sexual harassment victim and would have also offended a reasonable person standing in the victim’s shoes. That analysis was involved, but it had nothing to do with the intent of the harasser. Rather, the focus was squarely on the impact of the harasser’s actions.

That’s how the Coast Guard analyzed it. Several viewers of the broadcast complained about being flashed a White Power symbol, and the Coast Guard responded by apologizing and removing the Coast Guard member from the response team.

But, did the Coast Guard overreact?

Now, I know what some of you must be thinking, “Eric, what if it was just an ‘okay’ sign? Removing the Coast Guard Member is harsh.”

(Maybe “harsh” isn’t your word.)

I’m hip. It’s not like he burned a cross on live television. No one would defend that. Instead, he made a hand gesture that could just as easily (if not more so) be innocent as offensive.

Put your business in the Coast Guard’s shoes. Would you do nothing? Or would your company acknowledge the situation, issue a statement, and respond in a manner that is designed to end the complained-of harassment.

Here we are in the world of social media, where anything can be shared virally in a snap. That includes a hand gesture that many construe as offensive.

I know what I would do.


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