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Universal Orlando has settled a discrimination lawsuit last week with two families who alleged its employees dressed as Gru from Despicable Me used a hate symbol in photos taken with their black and Hispanic daughters. Court records do not disclose how much the company settled for.
Tiffiney and Richard Zinger, as well as Geisy Moreno and Joel Rodriguez said their children faced racial discrimination from costumed employees in separate instances at a resort hotel and theme park in early 2019, reports the Orlando Sentinel.
In one photo from March 2019, an employee dressed as Gru is seen holding a banana in one hand and making the “Okay” hand gesture with the other hand on the shoulder of the black child, referred to as J.Z. in court records.
In a second photo from February 2019, a costumed employee, also dressed as the Despicable Me character, is seen making the “Okay” gesture with one hand while posing for a photo with the Hispanic child, referred to as H.R. in court records.
It remains unclear if the two photos of the costumed Universal Orlando employee is the same person or two separate individuals.
While the “Okay” hand gesture, in most contexts, is “entirely innocuous and harmless” — notes the Anti-Defamation League — some now consider it a “white power” symbol, thanks to a viral hoax by members of the website 4chan in 2017.
— Sankaku Complex (@sankakucomplex) October 5, 2019
In June 2021, the two families reportedly sued Universal in Orange County for more than $100,000 in total damages. They later increased their claims to over $75,000 for each plaintiff, and also sued Loews Royal Pacific Resort, after moving their case to the U.S. District Court.
In the lawsuit, the Hispanic family alleged the employee dressed as Gru initially ignored them because they were speaking Spanish, and continued interacting with English-speaking guests at the Universal Studios Florida theme park.
H.R.’s father said he had to beg the costumed employee for a photo, only to find that the Despicable Me character displayed the “Okay” gesture in the photo.
As for the incident involving J.Z., her family said the Universal Orlando employee not only made the “Okay” gesture, but also raised bananas over both the young girl and her mother’s heads in photos taken at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort.
The lawsuit added that J.Z., a black biracial girl with autism, later wanted to use the photos for a school project, but was “humiliated” after being told she could not because of the “Okay” gesture.
“We never want our guests to experience what this family did,” Universal Orlando Resort spokesperson Tom Schroder told USA Today in 2019. “This is not acceptable and we are sorry — we are taking steps to make sure nothing like this happens again.”
Universal Orlando is not the only entity to be hit with a racial discrimination lawsuit over the behavior of its costumed employees.
Over the summer, Sesame Place was slapped with a $25 million racial discrimination lawsuit after a costumed employee was seen on video appearing to snub black children.
You can follow Alana Mastrangelo on Facebook and Twitter at @ARmastrangelo, and on Instagram.