In an establishment serving dessert in Markham (a town in the Greater Toronto Area), we all labeled one another. Like a fresh coat of paint after the last one has dried, stereotypes were reinforced, subtle prejudices affirmed and the lazy psychological packaging of human beings was sealed.

Four men. One of us made a joke about a woman and men who are classified ‘black’ and the obligatory chuckles followed. I chuckled too – a nervous, fake and forced chuckle, caught between the dissonance of the value I have for my friend and my own inner outrage, fighting subconsciously-accepted conceptions. In that moment, I tolerated. I was wrong to do so, am ashamed of it and I told the friend – twice – that that ‘joke’ is wrong. He knows it too, but hey, we were a bunch of guys and there were no individuals who were ‘black’ around us so – why not revel in the ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy that really is no good for humanity or gender relations?

We’re all friends, yes. Yet, I wonder: do we all see each other as humans first, or our names first, instead of a particular, mythical ‘race’ or ‘nationality’ that has unfortunately been ingrained as a method of classification all over the world? I know that the latter viewpoint has been exercised among us. I want to shed this tendency to label like a cracked cocoon that will be broken up and dispersed by the wind into nothingness. Words that we once used for crayons when we were children – brown, white, black, yellow – we now use to identify human beings. I hurt when I hear it used by the people I interact with.

I think many individuals do it. We sit in our cars at a red light, watching pedestrians walk in front of us and we do it. Or, we see people waiting at a bus stop. We see a person and our minds grab at the colour or ethnicity palette in our psyches. It’s easy and it’s lazy. That’s Toronto and many other major cities for you; people of many cultures residing in the same area, perceiving each other as ‘different’. In a multicultural context, ‘different’ is another word I do not trust. It stifles issues like labeling, bias, suspicion of unfamiliarity and tribal tendencies while parading itself as something beautiful, to be appreciated and worse, to be proud of.

What were and are we really trying to do? It seems as if we are trying to coddle some tolerant part of us – that part of us that justifies that we are worldly (not in the religious sense that uses the word negatively). Tolerance hurts. It exists as an actual word, stifling twitching eyes, inner outrage or disagreement and protest. That’s why it hurts.

“People are too busy living their lives to be concerned about that,” said one of the friends, who was also at that place in Markham having dessert.

“Toronto is very diverse,” said another person, “difference doesn’t mean good or bad, it’s just ‘different’.” She was smiling and somehow I thought of her shrugging.

I understand these perspectives. I thought of myself endorsing the latter because it seems less stressful, but I feared the drop in my IQ and the disappearance of my personal outrage. I fear the couch-potato perception of multiculturalism: smile, shrug, tolerate.

While clinging onto a tribal mentality, did some people forget about the fluidity of blood donations and organ transplants? What about the biological freedom of human sexual intercourse to produce offspring? Or how about infants playing together, free of the mental labeling that they might tragically learn to do as they grow older?

Some people did forget. They forgot to the point that one wonders if they even knew in the first place.

There is nothing to ‘figure out’. There doesn’t need to be conversation on how to negotiate perceived differences for a better sense of community. The potential to contribute to this is in every individual, once one stops clinging to the culture of a country one no longer resides in, or the idea that one is a particular ethnicity, as constructed by archaic quasi-anthropologists. It’s a conscious mental effort and one will have to face all facets of oneself with truthfulness and complete recognition of one’s psychological capabilities.

Otherwise, then, what are we left with?

We are left with comedians who make jokes about a multicultural society (indeed, multiculturalism is a joke; however, is not a laughing matter). We laugh boisterously or chuckle knowingly. “It’s true, it’s true!” we think, or say. What better way to justify our silent prejudices and psychological packaging of others than humour? We should be ashamed of laughing at these jokes, because it’s subtly damaging and only perpetuates stereotypes. They are foolish things to say. These jokes should remind us that we settle for less in our thoughts about fellow human beings.

We are left with cultures and religions that foster exclusionary thinking and prerequisites on who to trust, who to marry and worse, how to raise a child.

We are left with Italian-Canadians, Pakistani-Canadians, Korean-Canadians, African-Canadians, Iranian-Canadians, Jewish-Canadians, [insert nationality/ ‘ethnicity’ here]-Canadians. The friend who was having dessert asked me if I think this hyphenated thing is ridiculous and I do. The only reason ‘Canadian’ is added to the other end is to justify one’s actual physical presence in Canada, while psychologically and emotionally one resides elsewhere. It shows. Canada, this vast space of evolutionary potential, gets the pity-end of the hyphen. Worse, our common humanity is hardly ever first choice. Still, it seems we like it that way, since we do not demand more of a meaningful commitment.

So smile. Shrug. Tolerate. Who wants dessert?