Politics

Olympian Sunisa Lee pepper-sprayed in racist attack

racist attack on sunisa lee
Lee compted for the US in the 2020 Olypmic games in Tokyo. Source: Ftaaffe (via. Wikimedia Commons)
Whilst waiting for an Uber, Olympic champion Sunisa Lee was pepper sprayed and received racist abuse from a car speeding by, amid rising AAPI hate crimes in the US

By Annabelle Martin | Contributor

Sunisa Lee, US Olympic gymnastics champion, was waiting for an Uber in Los Angeles with friends when a car sped by them and the passengers yelled anti-Asian slurs while proceeding to spray her with pepper spray.

In an interview with pop culture media company PopSugar, Lee revealed that she and a group of Asian friends were targeted. The attack took place in October, when Lee was in Los Angeles to film ‘Dancing with the Stars’.

Lee, 18, grew up in a tight-knit Hmong community in St Paul, Minnesota. Her parents emigrated from Laos before she was born and settled in the city, which is home to the largest Hmong community in the US. Lee made history by travelling to Tokyo this summer, becoming the first US Olympic athlete from the Hmong ethic group.

Since the coronavirus was first reported in China, members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities across the US have faced increasing racism in the form of verbal harassment and physical attacks. More than 9,000 anti-Asian incidents have been reported since March 2020.

The gymnast said she and her friends, all of Asian descent, were waiting for their Uber after a night out when a car passed with people inside shouting ethnic slurs and telling them to “go back to where they came from”.  One person sprayed her in the arm with pepper spray before the vehicle sped away, she said.

“I was so mad, but there was nothing I could do or control because they skirted off,” Lee asserted. “I didn’t do anything to them, and having the reputation, it’s so hard because I didn’t want to do anything that could get me into trouble. I just let it happen,” she added.

Russell Jeung, an Asian American studies professor at San Francisco State and Co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, said Lee’s response is common among people who are targeted in a hate crime and feel like they have let the incident happen or they were powerless.

The US experienced a surge in anti-Asian violence in 2020 according to FBI statistics, with some activists attributing that to the rhetoric of former US president Donald Trump, who characterised COVID-19 as the “China virus”.

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