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Biden has a new moniker in sign language. Some say it looks like a gang sign

The deaf community has been unable to unify around a single American Sign Language name for President-elect Joe Biden.
(Drew Angerer / Getty Images)
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Deaf Americans are picking a new name for President-elect Joe Biden, shorthand that would replace B-I-D-E-N in colloquial American Sign Language. But many have taken to social media this week to denounce the top contender, saying it looks like a gang sign.

“We BIPOC completely disagree with that [sign],” American Sign Language influencer and TikTok star Nakia Smith signed in a video on Monday, using the acronym for Black, Indigenous and people of color. "[The sign] feels so unsafe for us.”

The contested sign — one of a handful under consideration — is meant to evoke the President-elect’s signature Ray-Ban sunglasses. But Smith and others say it resembles a “C” sign used by members of the Crips gang in some American cities and could be dangerous for signers of color and embarrassing to the the incoming administration.

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The “sign name for Biden don’t look good for him,” she wrote in response to a comments on Instagram. “He said he got our back [as Black Americans] so we ain’t [trying to] make him look stupid.”

ASL sign names are often bestowed by friends or family in childhood. But the process of naming a prominent hearing person, like choosing the shorthand for a social media service or novel disease, can lead to disagreement.

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“The deaf community tends to come together to create new signs when our society experiences changes,” said Michael Agyin, a deaf activist in L.A. and the founder of the Compton ASL Club. “Just as a sign for the coronavirus came about, the same applies to the new president.”

A sign language interpreter during a speech by Joe Biden on July 28 at the William Hicks Anderson Community Center in Wilmington, Del.
(Mark Makela / Getty Images)

Presidential sign names typically follow one of three major conventions: initials, physical appearance or reputation.

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Presidents John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt fall squarely into the first category, as do Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln, though the latter two add a physical flourish: Obama’s “B” flutters out in the shape of a flag, while Lincoln’s “L” springs up from the forehead like a top hat.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the popular sign name for Donald Trump, which bears no lexical relationship to the president’s name in English but deftly evokes his iconic comb-over.

“The sign name can go both ways, either positive or negative,” Agyin said. “There can be other signs, but it won’t be dominant.”

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To wit: Presidents Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon were both rechristened with sign names that evoked their political scandals. Since Watergate, the sign for Nixon has combined the hand shape for “N” with the motion for “liar,” while a popular sign name for Clinton has incorporated the word for “affair” since his 1998 impeachment.

Yet despite his long life in the public eye, Biden has yet to inspire a single, common moniker.

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“One reason Biden’s sign name is tricky is that he has no strong visual characteristics that make him stand out,” Agyin said. “I mean, Biden has been around in politics for 47 years, and this is the first time he’s actually getting a sign name.”

While the sunglasses sign has stirred controversy, signers have so far failed to unify around an alternative. An initial-based name has been criticized for looking too much like Obama’s. Another, evoking Biden’s slicked-back hair, likewise failed to launch.

Some have floated signs evoking Biden’s crooked smile, which Agyin and others hope may catch on. But whatever the community chooses, the president-elect should cherish his new name, the activist said.

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“Biden should be proud and honored he’s getting a new sign name,” Agyin said. “Because he’s adding new sign language vocabulary, and that’s definitely awesome.”

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