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‘Jeopardy!’ contestant facing criticism for allegedly using white power symbol

"Jeopardy!" contestant Kelly Donohue.
"Jeopardy!" contestant Kelly Donohue.YouTube

A “Jeopardy!” contestant from Winthrop is facing criticism for making a hand gesture during a recent show that closely resembled a white supremacist sign, though he adamantly denies that he meant to use a racist symbol and said via Facebook that he “unequivocally” condemns all forms of bigotry.

Kelly Donohue made the gesture in question during a Tuesday airing of the show, according to a letter of protest signed by more than 500 people who identified themselves as former contestants. The note was posted Wednesday to Medium.com.

“During his on-camera introduction, Kelly made a gesture with his hand that he has since claimed was an indication that he had won three games,” the letter says. “He had, on previous episodes, indicated with one finger and two fingers that he had won one and two games, and no reasonable person would have interpreted those gestures differently.”

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But Tuesday, the letter says, “this gesture was not a clear-cut symbol for the number three. He held his thumb and forefinger together with his other three fingers extended and palm facing inward, and he tapped his chest. This, whether intentional or not, resembled very closely a gesture that has been coopted by white power groups, alt right groups, and an anti-government group that calls itself the Three Percenters.”

“Jeopardy!” representatives didn’t return an e-mail seeking comment Thursday.

Donohue, in a strongly worded Facebook posting Thursday, said he meant only to indicate he’d won three games when he used the hand sign many interpreted as something more sinister. Attempts to reach him by phone and e-mail weren’t successful Thursday.

“I’m truly horrified with what has been posted about me on social media,” Donohue posted on Facebook. “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.”

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Donohue said he could hardly fathom anyone using the platform of an iconic game show watched by millions to push bigoted views.

“It’s shameful to me to think anyone would try to use the stage of Jeopardy! to advance or promote such a disgusting agenda,” he wrote.

Donohue also provided his account of the moment when he used the hand gesture.

“During the taping of my fourth episode, I was simply raising three fingers to mark my 3rd win,” he wrote. “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.”

The gesture that Donohue used resembles what the Southern Poverty Law Center describes on its website as the “OK” signal favored by hate groups.

The symbol, the law center says on its site, is “three extended fingers with the thumb and index finger touching to form a circle — that is often seen among the Alt-Right’s followers. ... For the antigovernment Three Percenter movement this same hand gesture symbolizes their belief in the disputed claim that only three percent of American colonists fought against the British in the American Revolution.”

Prior to his Facebook post on Thursday, Donohue had apparently written an earlier entry, now deleted, in which he wrote, “That’s a 3. No more. No less,” according to the former contestants’ letter, which faulted the show’s producers for not editing out his hand gesture from the episode.

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Donohue, in his Thursday posting, appeared to confirm the letter writers’ characterization of his now-deleted earlier Facebook post.

“I removed the previous post because the comments were more than I could bear,” Donohue wrote. “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.”

The letter writers, however, suggest in their Medium.com note that Donohue’s intent in the moment was beside the point.

“Regardless of his stated intent, the gesture is a racist dog whistle,” the letter says. “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. 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.”

Donohue collected $80,601 in winnings over four games on the show, according to the “Jeopardy!” website.

The site lists him as a bank examiner, and an article in the Winthrop Transcript said he’s worked for state of Massachusetts for more than a decade.

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The website for Unit 6 of Local 207 of the SEIU’s National Association of Government Employees, or NAGE, lists Donohue as a vice president of the union local. A union spokesperson didn’t return an inquiry seeking comment.

Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.