Looking at the world through the lens of mental burden gives us an easy way to understand privilege. Simply put, privilege is not having to worry about something.

  • Do you have to worry about finding a wheelchair-accessible route to where you want to go?
  • Do you have to worry about being stopped by police just because of the way you look?
  • Do you have to worry about unwanted sexual attention at work?

If not, you have privilege over the people who do. The less you have to worry, the more brain capacity you have to devote to learning or innovating, and the more energy you can devote to your life’s pursuits.

This model of privilege also makes intersectionality easy to understand: if you belong to more than one oppressed group, your worries stack up. It’s no wonder people at the intersection of different types of oppression have to work that much harder to get to the same place as someone with privilege.

So do most poor people—who don’t have to worry about running a Fortune 500 company—have privilege over a CEO? Nope—the CEO’s concerns are higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

Maslow's hierarchy of needs pyramid. The lowest, most basic level is physiological: breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, excretion. The next level up is safety: security of body, employment, resources, morality, family, health, property. The next level up is love: friendship, family, sexual intimacy. The next level up is esteem: self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, respect by others. The top level is self-actualization: morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts.

If your worries are higher on the hierarchy, you have privilege over people who have to worry about their fundamental existence and safety. (We humans aren’t too good about distinguishing between these different levels when it comes to our own worries—a topic for another post.)

This mental burden–based view also shows that privilege can vary by situation. A small woman may have to worry about her physical safety in some circumstances but in other situations has the privilege of not attracting as much suspicion as others might.