Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy is calling a Christchurch school's "dress as refugees" mufti-day "well intentioned but ignorant".
Middleton Grange School asked students to bring a gold-coin donation for World Vision, and experience "a little bit of what it feels like to be poor".
"We are asking children to dress as refugees in old ragged clothes if possible," the school told parents.
Experiencing being poor was a good way to develop understanding and compassion, it said.
However, Newstalk ZB's Chris Lynch received an email from a friend of a parent at the school, who was concerned about the premise of the mufti day.
The woman said her friends, who were parents of a student, had complained to the school about the mufti day.
She said this complaint had fallen upon deaf ears and the principal had not seen a problem.
"I am finding it really hard to wrap my head around the whole idea that no one thought this through," she said.
"That no one was empathetic enough to realise that this is a culturally sensitive issue."
Dame Susan Devoy echoed these concerns.
"It's probably another case of people being well-intentioned but pretty ignorant and unaware, that the stigma around refugees and the conversation narrative we have in New Zealand needs to change," she said.
"While a refugee living in a camp might not have many luxuries or provisions, even when they turn up in this country they often have very little, in reality they're often professional people."
"It's continuing that stigma that refugees are poor people that come from impoverished backgrounds."
Devoy said we should be working hard to eradicate this stigma.
When questioned about the occasion the Christian school said the initiative was created by the junior school council, which had wanted to students to get a raised awareness of the cause they were raising money for.
"Seventy-five per cent of the primary school students wore clothing that allowed them to show their empathy and support for children in Syria who face a much more harsh and difficult environment," school principal Richard Vanderpyl said in a statement.
"I believe it has raised a much greater awareness of the sadness and difficulty refugee children face when displaced from their homes by war."
Vanderpyl said the school had listened to people's concerns around the day and "quickly responded to any worries".
Two people had complained to the school - a parent and one other person who did not identify themselves over the phone.
Devoy said we had a responsibility to raise the next generation to be culturally sensitive.
"We as adults are role models. We should be teaching them and showing them the right way to do things."