Born and raised in Whanganui, Kingi is the progeny of a Māori father and Pākehā mother. Educated at kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa Māori, he spoke no English until he was seven. He went on to win scholarships to attend St George’s, a preparatory school for Whanganui Collegiate, and another scholarship to finish his secondary education at Collegiate itself. In 2005 Kingi topped the school in accounting and statistics; from there the list of academic and sporting achievements continued, including runner up for dux in his final year. In 2006 he won more scholarships to attend Victoria University to study maths and commerce.
The story has the narrative arc of a movie script, a young man’s fall from grace and subsequent redemption. Kingi has now almost completed a PHD in economics at ivy league Cornell University in upstate New York. Our paths first crossed last year when I was looking for speakers for a health symposium in Wellington. Google his name and news coverage of the case comes up. I was unperturbed; take the incident out of the picture, and Kingi’s profile is insanely perfect. The stories were a remarkable glimpse of human frailty.
Even in the case of a high achiever like Kingi, the system unleashes its prejudice. A decade ago when I left a management position at the Ministry of Education to start my own business, a senior manager said to me ‘well aren’t the Māori middle-class doing very nicely then?’ Only last year a Pākehā literati pontificating about the position of Māori literature within the New Zealand canon, told me that ‘some people would argue that literature is a European tradition.’ Māori failure and success are both open to being judged and penalised.
Dr Carla Houkamou from the University of Auckland, Hautahi Kingi and I are now developing a study of systems bias towards African American and Māori children. Along with his experience as an international academic Kingi brings a refreshing Gen Y positivity to the project, his mind is open, unfettered by dogma. His writing has the same breeziness and optimism, even when it focuses on weighty issues like immigration, poverty and Māori development. When our team of three meets on Skype, his face is fair, the eyes wide set, the smile broad. Despite the adversity of his recent history I can still see the senior student from Whanganui Collegiate smiling at me from the pages of North and South. He is holding two trophies and a medal, and his face is beatific.