Entertainment

Jeopardy Should Probably Speak Up About Contestant's Controversial Gesture

The three-time winner claims that he was just showing how many games he'd won, but the symbol has known connections to white supremacy.
April 28, 2021, 9:17pm
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via Jeopardy/Twitter 

Update: On Thursday morning, Donohue posted an update on his Facebook page which read:

I’m truly horrified with what has been posted about me on social media.  I absolutely, unequivocally condemn white supremacy and racism of any kind.  People who know me personally know that I am not a racist, but for the public at large it bears repeating: I am not a racist and I reject and condemn white supremacy and all forms of bigotry for the evil they are. It’s shameful to me to think anyone would try to use the stage of Jeopardy! to advance or promote such a disgusting agenda. During the taping of my fourth episode, I was simply raising three fingers to mark my 3rd win. There was nothing more I was trying to indicate.

I deeply regret this terrible misunderstanding. I never meant to hurt a soul and I assure you I am no friend of racists or white supremacists.

I removed the previous post because the comments were more than I could bear. I stand by the statement itself and you can find it reported in other media.  I did, however, understand the fair criticism that I did not include a forceful condemnation of white supremacy in my initial statement. I hope my feelings on that matter are clear now.


A couple of years ago, someone responded to one of Ken Jennings’ Jeopardy-related tweets, joking that Jennings had wagered $69 on every single Final Jeopardy answer. He obviously didn’t, and no one else is allowed to write that number down either. “This is officially forbidden on Jeopardy now, as of last year,” Jennings responded. “Not even joking.” 

It’s true. There are certain numerical amounts that Jeopardy contestants cannot use during Final Jeopardy, due to their sexual connotations, their association with The Devil, or their connections to Nazism and white supremacy. Jeopardy’s production team seems to understand the symbolism behind certain numbers—even 666, which would only upset your Nana—and that only makes what happened Tuesday night even more confusing. 

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Kelly Donohue, an inspector with the Massachusetts state Division of Banks, had won three straight episodes, collecting $79,601 in the process. But as longtime announcer Johnny Gilbert introduced him at the beginning of his fourth show, Donohue made a three-fingered hand gesture, and appeared to lightly tap that hand against his heart. 

Although no one associated with Jeopardy seemed to clock the significance before the episode aired, a lot of people on social media did. “Did the champion on #Jeopardy just give the white power sign? We need an explanation,” one Twitter user wrote. “The current reigning champion on Jeopardy! flashed the Three Percenter white supremacist sign during his introduction tonight,” another added. And one Jeopardy-centric account just went with “Bruh,” and a photo of Donohue’s intro. 

As the Anti-Defamation League explains, the ‘Okay hand gesture’ was originally part of a 4-chan hoax, in which members of the site insisted that it represented the letters ‘WP’ for ‘white power.’ Although that explanation was later discovered to be bullshit, some “right-leaning individuals,” as the ADL euphemistically calls them, started trolling others by making the symbol in a ‘HAHA, WE’RE SO RACIST” way—but because they are racists, it’s since been co-opted as a less sarcastic, more sincere gesture to signify their beliefs. 

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A horizontal, palm-in variation of the ‘Okay’ shape is used by the Three Percenters, an extremist militia group that the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified as one of the “core components within the anti-government militia movement,” along with the Oath Keepers and conspiracy propagandists like the John Birch Society and InfoWars. 

In a now-deleted Facebook post, Donohue said that his heart-tapping three-finger symbol was just to let everyone know that he was a three-day winner. “Many of the great champions of old had a little signature hello they would do on-screen when being introduced by Johnny Gilbert,” he wrote. “I decided to count my victories. That’s a 1. That’s a 2. That’s a 3. No more. No less. There wasn’t a hidden agenda or any malice behind it. Had I managed to repeat as champion, you’d have been treated to a 4.” (English professor Dana Schumacher-Schmidt kept that from happening, and Donohue finished in third place on Tuesday night.) 

That might be plausible enough—although personally, if I’d been accused of making an offensive symbol on national television, or aligning myself with an extremist militia, I’d probably say ‘I WON THREE EPISODES BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY I’M NOT A FUCKING RACIST, AND I CONDEMN WHITE SUPREMACY IN ALL OF ITS FORMS.’ And although it could be a coincidence, Donohue’s longtime (but now-deleted) Facebook header image was a 1964 photograph of Frank Sinatra at the Eden Roc hotel in Miami...making that same ‘Okay’ hand gesture. 

As of this writing, Jeopardy has not addressed the controversy, nor has the show responded to VICE’s request for comment. The thing is, not only does it seem like someone on the production team should’ve been aware of the gesture’s alternate meaning—and its potential to be misinterpreted—and it wouldn’t have been weird for them to ask Donohue to redo his introduction in a different way. 

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“On my taping day, I noticed everybody was doing little heart symbols with their hands and all these things, and I didn’t want to stand there like a cold fish,” Jean Westcott, who appeared on the show last month, told VICE. “My kids are grown now, but we used to do ‘bunny ears’ with our fingers as a little hello. So I did that, they filmed it, and then they said ‘Jean we’re going to need to re-record you because you did the bunny ears. I didn’t take offense to it, but did think it was weird because over the past couple of years, you see younger contestants crossing their fingers or making the heart symbol. I know those are innocuous though.” 

Those kinds of corrections or minor updates are common while the show is being filmed. Westcott said that another contestant whose episode was recorded on that same day had to re-tape her response to a clue about the film Meet the Parents “three times,” so that it was clear she’d said ‘Focker,’ with an O. Another recent contestant told The Ringer that guest host Dr. Mehmet Oz had to re-record his introduction to a Final Jeopardy category called Antidisestablishmentarianism “seven or eight times” because he couldn’t get the pronunciation quite right. 

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Jeopardy’s production team does let contestants know what is and is not acceptable during taping. “In the prep session [before the show], we’re told things like minimum wagers for Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy, what happens if the host makes a mistake, et cetera,” Meredith MacVittie, who was on the show in January 2019, said. “When we were talking about acceptable wagers, [the contestant coordinator] said that they wanted to avoid anything that the audience might consider offensive, like 69 or 666.” 

MacVittie said that her taping group was also warned not to wager $1488 —a number associated with both the white supremacist ‘14 words’ slogan and as shorthand for ‘Heil Hitler’ —after a previous contender unwittingly used it because of some personal, non-Nazi meaning. 

“Another contestant pointed out that it had white supremacist connotations,” MacVittie said. “The [$1488] contestant was mortified, and as the wager didn’t affect the outcome of the show, they were able to edit it out. I believe they digitally altered it in post-production, and had [former host] Alex Trebek dub over it. That was the only number she pointed out specifically, but she was clear that there was no tolerance for anything that hinted at racism, white supremacy, or anything of that nature.” 

MacVittie and Westcott are both among the almost 300 former contestants—and counting—who have signed an open letter to Jeopardy’s producers, asking them to acknowledge and disavow the hurtful, offensive meaning of Donohue’s gesture, and to ensure that a similar hand signal is not broadcast again in the future. 

“Regardless of his stated intent, the gesture is a racist dog whistle. Some of the first people to notice this were not affiliated with Jeopardy! in any way—they were viewers who couldn’t believe what they’d seen, captured it on video, and shared it to Twitter,” the letter reads. “Among them were people of color who, needless to say, are attuned to racist messaging and not appreciative that the show allowed this symbol to be broadcast.” 

“This event was the opposite of apolitical speech,” the letter continues. “It was perceived by people across demographic boundaries as a wink and a nod by white men about their superiority. And that speech is out there and the damage has been done.” 

VICE has reached out to Donohue, but we have not yet received a response. The former contestants are right to be upset, as are the viewers who questioned whether this was an innocuous nod to Donohue’s three-night accomplishments, or whether it was something more insidious. In a time when this country is still reeling from the impact of the January 6 Capitol insurrection, and when extremists have traded their granddads’ white hoods and secrecy, for khaki pants, Fred Perry polos, and social media accounts, it’s irresponsible not to take this kind of thing seriously. This is one of those  situations where saying nothing actually speaks volumes.