A sign urging Chinese people not to spit and a bus driver who refused a seat to an Indian passenger are among hundreds of racial discrimination complaints made in the last decade.

The Human Rights Commission (HRC) has received 3041 complaints alleging racism in the past 10 years.

Figures released to the Herald under the Official Information Act showed on average the HRC received 341 race-related complaints each year, the most in 2009 with a total 399 complaints.

The HRC could not detail each complaint for privacy reasons, but released some examples, including:

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• A poster stating in big bold letters: "If you are of Maori, Chinese, Asian or Pacific descent get yourself tested for Hepatitis B."
• A public swimming pool sign that read: "Chinese people refrain from spitting."
• A public bus driver refused to give a passenger a seat because "you Indians always do this".
• A sub-contractor asked an employee to prove his birthplace with a passport and police clearance certificate, despite his family having been in New Zealand for 150 years.

The latest racial row involved Sir Peter Leitch, aka the Mad Butcher, and a young woman of Maori descent, Lara Bridger.

The 23-year-old alleged Sir Peter was racist in telling her Waiheke Island was a "white man's"; the Kiwi businessman said it was a joke response to her claims being tangata whenua entitled her to do as she pleased.

"It's very important if you do step over the line you meet with those who have been offended and talk about it."

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While Bridger took down the video posted on social media telling her story, she stood by her version of events on Wednesday. Meanwhile Sir Peter's spokeswoman said he wouldn't be engaging further in the row which continued to escalate on social media.

Massey University professor of sociology Paul Spoonley said it was easy to "step over the line", but said take ownership when a comment back-fired.

"It's very important if you do step over the line, you meet with those who have been offended and talk about it."

He said New Zealand was on the whole more open than other countries, but we still held "racist beliefs and racist institutions".

Spoonley described the country's racism as being in three levels; casual racism where people dismiss others and make jokes; racism targeted at recent migrants, a "recent dynamic"; and the third "ugly" racism on social media.

However, he said discussions around racism needed to stay in the open.

"Everybody has a stake in this, and we should all say what we think ... but give it respect.

"We need leaders to provide some direction and some substance to the debate ... because as soon as it goes online the debate gets very ugly, very quickly."

Human Rights Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy wasn't available to talk on the issue on Wednesday.

But in previous interviews with the Herald she has challenged the casual racism she felt was prevalent in New Zealand and led to the launch of the HRC's That's Us campaign.

The HRC's figures showed most racial allegations stemmed from situations in the workplace (866), the public sector (795), or the provision of goods and services (553).

The commission assisted 775 complainants, took no action on 247, and resolved 157 complaints although the outcome of 1725 cases were unknown.

In the past two years 85 were referred to either the Office of Human Rights Proceedings or the Human Rights Review Tribunal.

Of those who disclosed their ethnicities, Asians laid the most complaints (601), followed by Caucasians (580), Maori (398), and Middle Eastern and Pacific people (fewer than 100 each).

Labour MP Carmel Sepuloni said her experience showed her racism wasn't confined to one group.

As a woman of Tongan, Samoan and New Zealand-European descent, she said "racism comes at me from a few different angles".

However, Sepuloni described herself as "secure in who she was" and called on Kiwis to be more accepting and to think before they spoke.

"The intention isn't always bad, but the impact they can have on a person can be."