By Adrianna Rodriguez, USA Today
Tiffiney Zinger said it was painful telling her daughter she couldn’t use a family vacation photo for her second grade class project – the image was marred by what appeared to be a symbol of hate.
The photo shows the 6-year-old girl, who is biracial and has autism, posing with an actor dressed as the movie character Gru from “Despicable Me” during a Universal Orlando breakfast event attended by the Zinger family in March. The character formed an upside-down “OK” symbol with his fingers, recognized by some as a hate symbol, on the girl’s shoulder, according to a photo and video reviewed by USA TODAY.
A Universal Orlando Resort spokesman said Tuesday in response to USA TODAY inquiries about the episode that the actor had been fired. The spokesman, Tom Schroder, initially declined to further comment but then issued a statement:
“We never want our guests to experience what this family did. This is not acceptable and we are sorry – and we are taking steps to make sure nothing like this happens again. We can’t discuss specifics about this incident, but we can confirm that the actor no longer works here. We remain in contact with the family and will work with them privately to make this right.”
Tiffiney Zinger, who is black, and her husband, Richard Zinger, who is white, traveled with their daughter, who is now 7, and her younger brother from Colorado to Orlando, where they own a home.
The Zingers were at Universal Orlando for the day to attend the character breakfast at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort, a Universal hotel, at 11 a.m. on March 23. The hotel hosts the event every Saturday.
“We just wanted to take them to see the minions,” Tiffiney Zinger said. “Do something special for our family and this person ruined that special warm feeling.”
The Zingers say they did not initially notice what happened with the actor. But while going through vacation photos in mid-August, they noticed the controversial symbol.
The couple began digging deeper into their smartphone photos and videos to find more evidence of what they were seeing. Finally, they landed on a video taken at the same time of the picture that confirmed their worst fears.
In the 29-second clip, Zinger’s daughter is being directed to stand by the Gru character. As she excitedly walks toward him, he gestures for her to stand to his side. The Gru character first places his hand behind her shoulder. Then, the character moves his right hand on top of her shoulder and curls his thumb and index finger into a clearly visible “OK” symbol.The gesture has become a symbol of concern because it has been used by white supremacists and other far-right extremists.
Zinger’s 2-year-old son also posed in the shot next to a minion.
USA TODAY is not naming the Zingers’ children to protect their privacy and has blurred their faces in content published with this story.
“It’s more than the ‘OK’ sign,” Richard Zinger said. “A lot of people don’t understand what that sign means.”
The incident happened a week after the New Zealand shooter, who killed 51 people in two Christchurch mosques in March, flashed the “OK” symbol during his court appearance.
The Anti-Defamation League added the hand gesture to their online database “Hate On Display” last week, which is a longstanding list that provides explanation for symbols memes and slogans that are frequently used by white supremacists and other hate groups.
However, the hand symbol has had many meanings before it evolved into an expression of hate. Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at Southern Poverty Law Center, said the symbol began showing up about four years ago as an online trolling tactic used by white supremacists.
Beirich says they like to “photobomb” images with hate symbols and then share them online as an inside joke or prank.
“It’s a game for them to slip their hate symbols in contexts that don’t belong,” she said.
However, since the hand gesture has many different meanings, Beirich says context is key and it’s difficult to pinpoint a hate symbol if there isn’t information about the person who’s doing it.
Tiffiney Zinger, who recognized the symbol as hateful, said she was horrified that her daughter had her first exposure to racism at a family-friendly park.
“I’ve been emotionally distraught about it. I’m still pretty upset that someone felt they needed to do this to children,” Tiffiney Zinger said. “It can cause emotional stress on my child and her development.”
Richard and Tiffiney Zinger said they reached out to Universal a few days after discovering the video in August.
Universal staff told the family that the situation was being investigated, according to emails provided by Richard Zinger to USA TODAY.
After a month of silence, the Zingers reached out to Universal again to inquire about the status of the investigation. The company told the family it was “proprietary information” and offered them a gift card and free tickets.
Richard and Tiffiney Zinger said they’re not motivated to seek financial compensation, but noted they hired an attorney after a corporate lawyer for Universal reached out to them.
“I just want somebody to take responsibility for it because nobody is taking responsibility for anything,” Richard Zinger said.
The Zingers said they didn’t see the hand symbol when taking the picture back in March.
The only thing they saw was their smiling daughter, who was excited to meet a character from her favorite movie – a movie she tirelessly watched over and over again. That day, they only saw a family memory they were hoping to capture forever.
But now the family says the hateful symbol is the only thing they can see. They hope by pursuing a legal inquiry, they will find some answers.
“I want to cause change,” Tiffiney Zinger said. “I hope this doesn’t happen to another family again, and I pray that this doesn’t happen to another kid.”
This article originally appeared in USA Today.