Microaggressions in the Workplace: Social & Cultural Causes

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

If you are interested in reducing microaggressions in your workplace, you probably want to start by thinking about what causes them. This lesson discusses social and cultural causes of microaggressions.

Understanding Microaggressions

Haley is excited. Her company has just embarked on an important endeavor to reduce microaggressions, or subtle acts of discrimination, in their workplace.

Haley knows that microaggressions often grow out of unconscious bias, preconceived notions we have about people from specific subgroups without even being aware that we think this way.

As someone who has been a victim of gender-based microaggressions, Haley is really looking forward to seeing the issue tackled. She also knows, though, that there will be some discomfort for her; she thinks maybe she herself has unwittingly committed microaggressions at times.

At the first meeting of the initiative, Haley gets to thinking about what causes microaggressions in the first place. She realizes that some of the times she might have perpetrated them, it was because of her relative social and cultural privilege over others.

Indeed, as Haley learns, microaggressions can often be linked to a variety of social and cultural causes.

Socioeconomics and Education

First of all, Haley knows that she grew up with a lot of socioeconomic, or class-based privilege. She has never really doubted her own or her family's financial security. Sometimes, Haley realizes that this can cause her to form biases against people with less money.

For instance, she might find herself thinking people with less money are lazy. This bias can lead to making comments or exclusive actions. Haley remembers once saying to a colleague in exasperation, 'If you would work a little harder, maybe you could afford to come out with me more often!' This was hurtful to Haley's colleague, who was putting all of her paychecks into paying off crippling student loans.

Haley knows that education can also lead to bias and microaggressions. People with high levels of education may assume that those with less education are less intelligent or deserving, and might exclude them from important decision making.

Understanding the causes of microaggressions can help us minimize them.


Religion can also play a role in leading to microaggressions. Haley has experienced this first hand as a Jewish person. She clearly remembers how last year around Christmas time, colleagues with desks on either side of hers put out Santa and other Christmas decorations.

Haley left her desk empty, and one of her neighbors looked at it, rolled her eyes, and said, 'Can't you just join in the fun?' For Haley, the dominance of Christmas feels exclusive and offensive, and this comment made her feel small and oppressed in the context of her job.

People from dominant religious backgrounds often feel unconsciously biased against those different from themselves.


As a white person, Haley is aware of the tremendous racial privileges she receives every day, and she has seen how race and racism can lead to microaggressions in the workplace.

Just the other day, she was sitting with colleagues doing some hard calculations. Her colleague Jim, an Asian man, walked in. One of Haley's partners looked at Jim and said, 'Come on, help us—you people are good at math!'

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