Being told the cops are looking for you is not out of the ordinary for Maori - even if you're a top scholar at one of the world's most prestigious universities.

Kingi Snelgar, 29, who is passionate about human rights wanted to share his experiences as part of the Human Rights Commission anti-racism That's Us campaign.

Snelgar, who graduated with his masters at Harvard Law School in the United States this year and was Auckland University's top Maori law student, said he has faced racism in the past.

"When you're a Maori lawyer entering the courtroom people assume you are the offender. It's that idea that Maori who appear in court are not capable of being lawyers."


At school he brushed off casual racism as a joke.

"People would laugh at you and your family and label them as criminals.

"If a police siren was going past a group of kids might look at me and say 'Kingi they're looking for you'.

"In hindsight I laugh it off but at the time I wouldn't want that to happen to anyone."

Kingi Snelgar and his long-time partner Kiri Toki both got full scholarships to Harvard School of Law. Photo / Facebook
Kingi Snelgar and his long-time partner Kiri Toki both got full scholarships to Harvard School of Law. Photo / Facebook

Before he left New Zealand for Harvard in July last year Snelgar worried about fitting in in a place of "extreme privilege".

"I was nervous about it as a place of extreme privilege and basically thought I wouldn't be good enough."

But he carved out a place he felt comfortable within a group of student activists.

They rallied against the 380-year-old institution to change a racist symbol, get more classes that focused on minority issues and encouraged more ethnic diversity within staff.

After he arrived Snelgar woke to an alleged racist hate crime. Black tape was found stretched over the faces of coloured professors in a hall of photos. This coincided with the black lives matter protests. The students decided to react with love rather than hate.

"The response was really good. Students put notes next to the professors about how much they appreciated them and in what ways."

Snelgar got involved in protesting to scrap the law school's official shield which stemmed from a brutal slave owner.

Isaac Royall Jr tortured and burned alive 77 black slaves in the 1700s. He bequeathed land to found Harvard Law School and, in 1936, to celebrate the university's 300th birthday, the law school adopted Royall's family crest.

Kingi Snelgar is from Whangarei with links to Ngā Puhi and Ngāi Tahu. PHOTO/John Stone
Kingi Snelgar is from Whangarei with links to Ngā Puhi and Ngāi Tahu. PHOTO/John Stone

The institution scrapped the seal in March this year after Snelgar and other activists complained to the dean.

"The symbol had its own whakapapa. Removing it was a way to break that legacy of slavery and oppression."

In a statement provided to the Herald, Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow explained she welcomed new students by talking about the controversy that surrounded the shield.

"It is crucial that we never confine ourselves to solely what is currently lawful, for the great evil of slavery happened within the confines of the law."

Once the seal was removed the student activists started their own reading groups where they could explore critical race and feminist theory, even inviting their own guest lecturers, Snelgar said.

"We were providing what we saw as missing in the curriculum with more diversity in education.

"I'm just trying to promote tolerance to accepting difference. Through diversity you can live a fuller life where greatness can be achieved."

Harvard Law School spokeswoman Michelle Deakin said the organisation had a diverse selection of students from all backgrounds. The Dean of Students Office aimed to include them by encouraging activities that promote, examine and celebrate diversity.

Snelgar cites the over-representation of Maori in the criminal justice system as an immediate concern, where 50 per cent of inmates are Maori, despite accounting for only 15 per cent of the population.

"Often prisons can be places where people just learn to be better criminals."

Snelgar believed society should look at underlying causes rather than just punishing and isolating vulnerable people and said we need more relaxed conversations about race rather than making it a divisive topic.

He hoped to continue contributing to international discussions on indigenous issues, like when he appeared before the United Nations Expert Mechanism on Indigenous Peoples in Geneva.

"We're just trying to make the world a better place for everyone," he said.

"This is a long conversation that's going to continue to happen making New Zealand feel safe and not oppressed."