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Deaf Company Removes Offensive Biden Sign Language Poster for Racist Gesture

Editor's Note

Contains images of racist symbols and gestures.

After being called out by BIPOC advocates in the Deaf community, Deaf production and advertising company MSM Productions removed a poster showing a new dedicated sign language gesture for President Joe Biden that mimicked a racist symbol.

Sometimes the Deaf community will adopt new, shorthand signs for prominent political figures instead of spelling out their names. For example, an “O” followed by a flag hand shape was adopted to represent former President Barack Obama. There have been attempts to give Biden a sign shorthand as well.

MSM Productions, a group of Deaf entertainment and advertising companies, promoted its version of a dedicated sign for Biden, printing it on posters and other merch that began circulating on social media. The sign was not created by nor endorsed by Biden or his campaign.

On Jan. 18, Earl Terry criticized MSM Productions for the poster and its proposed signed hand gesture for Biden because of its similarity to a “white power” hand symbol used by the white supremacist hate group Klu Klux Klan (KKK).

Terry, a Deaf advocate and American Sign Language (ASL) instructor, shared an image on Twitter of the poster side by side with images of Klan members using a similar gesture.

Terry warned others not to sign the gesture because of its racist history. Many of the decisions about new sign language like this, he said, are made without the input of BIPOC people. White Deaf and hard-of-hearing people don’t usually understand why some signs, hand shapes and gestures are hurtful to the BIPOC community.

“I was appalled when I saw the picture of the Joe Biden ASL name sign,” Terry told The Mighty in an email. “Deaf history often does not mention racial and injustice issues other than audism within Deaf communities.”

In a video shared on Facebook, Jose Frias Hernandez explained his concerns about seeing a white power symbol associated with Biden. “I don’t want to be reminded about dark time,” he shared in the Facebook post. “It is 2021. I’m scared for that sign name to be official as a president which only reminds me of KKK. No thank you.”

It’s not the first time members of the Deaf community rejected a proposed sign for Biden because of its association with violence against BIPOC people. Instagram user @itscharmay explained an earlier proposed sign for Biden looked like a gang sign that “feels so unsafe” for signers of color.

The Biden sign language posters and other items were for sale at the DeafStore, associated with MSM Productions, but have since been removed. In an email to The Mighty, MSM President Matthew Moore said that upon hearing concerns about the design, he was “surprised.” Moore said MSM worked with more than 20 Deaf people, including a few people of color, to create the sign and artwork. None of them were aware of the similarities.

Moore also indicated that the Biden sign depicted on the poster is a hand in motion, unlike the racist gesture. Moore also highlighted that the sign for “OK” has recently been co-opted by white supremacist groups, but he distinguished that these are different from official American Sign Language. Regardless, Moore said pulling down the artwork was the right thing to do.

“We are sadden that we had to remove this very beautiful design. We weren’t aware that this hand gesture existed before,” Moore said. “We wanted to create a very positive image showing that Deaf community do give our President and Vice President a sign name.”

Both failed attempts at creating a sign for Biden also led Terry to question why it’s necessary to create a new sign at all. Other presidents, including Trump and Obama, have signs. Thanks to a coalition of Deaf Black and Indian women, Vice President Kamala Harris also has a new sign name. But Terry said the Deaf community spelled Biden’s last name when he was vice president from 2008 to 2016. “Why now?” he asked.

For BIPOC people in the Deaf community, these incidents regarding how to sign President Biden’s name is just a reminder of how much the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community still has to learn about inclusion.

“That said a lot about our Deaf education. … BIPOC Deaf history in America is as important as Deaf history,” Terry wrote. “BLM woke America up. I am glad to see this sparked more dialogue within our community. It is overdue.”

Image via Twitter/Earl Terry

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