Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 5, 2022

Black, White and Exempt, edited by Lucinda Aberdeen and Jennifer Jones

Cultural warning: this review contains references to offensive racist policies, and a video link image of people who died.


Reading Black, White and Exempt is a book that I acquired after reading a review by Jennifer from Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large.  It was her final words that prompted me to buy it:

I have no polite, well-thought words to describe how this makes me feel. All I can suggest is that you read this book for yourself.

The book is mostly academic in tone, but it’s revelatory reading.  This is the description from the AIATSIS Bookshop website:

In 1957, Ella Simon of Purfleet mission near Taree, New South Wales, applied for and was granted a certificate of exemption.

Exemption gave her legal freedoms denied to other Indigenous Australians at that time: she could travel freely, open a bank account, and live and work where she wanted. In the eyes of the law she became a non-Aboriginal, but in return she could not associate -with other Aboriginal people – even her own family or
community.

It ‘stank in my nostrils’ — Ella Simon 1978.

These personal and often painful histories uncovered in archives, family stories and lived experiences reveal new perspectives on exemption. Black, White and Exempt describes the resourcefulness of those who sought exemption to obtain freedom from hardship and oppressive regulation of their lives as  Aboriginal Australians. It celebrates their resilience and explores  how they negotiated exemption to protect their families and increase opportunities for them. The book also charts exemptees who struggled to advance Aboriginal rights, resist state control and abolish the exemption system.

The impact of the racially targeted assimilationist-driven Exemption system is not a well-known aspect of Australia’s Black History.  As editors Lucinda Aberdeen and Jennifer Jones write in the Introduction:

Exemption allowed people to apply for official release from the legal provisions which constrained the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  People were motivated to seek exemption for many different reasons.  Possession of a certificate of exemption did not, however, guarantee freedom from government scrutiny or discriminatory treatment.,  As the book reveals, the price of exemption was considerable.

The traumatic and complex legacy of exemption is poorly understood.  This lack of knowledge should not be surprising, given that mechanism for gaining exemption in twentieth century Australia differed between states and territories, and were largely hidden from the public gaze. Individual applicants underwent invasive and judgemental bureaucratic assessment.  Their personal records, which are now stored in state archives, have been embargoed as a consequence of the sensitive and private materials they contain.  These records attest to noxious racial discourses that found expression in punitive and ongoing surveillance of exemptees.  In most jurisdictions, individuals who gained exemption were required to suppress their cultural heritage or risk losing their exempt status and the freedoms it afforded them.  Many people loathed the demands of exemption because of the impact on language, culture and kin, often labelling the certificates ‘dog tags’ or ‘beer tickets’.  In this way, descendants often grew up unaware of their parent, grandparent or ancestor’s exempt status, including apprehension of shame.  Meanwhile, broader Australian society remained largely ignorant of this racial regulation and its legacies.  (pp. 1-2)

Imagine finding a concealed certificate of exemption amongst a dead parent’s effects after his death…  Aunty Judi Wickes‘ MA thesis uses her Aboriginal grandmother’s diaries — which make no mention whatsoever about her husband’s exempt status — to analyse their lived experience of exemption and why they concealed it. You can read this MA thesis here. It’s academic, of course, but you can scroll down to the analysis of the diaries which are revelatory and very moving.  The video below explains how being isolated from family and community still impacts on descendants today.

On top of these humiliations was that the ongoing surveillance meant that

if exemption was revoked, the individual found themselves in a less than ideal situation as the government knew every detail about them, their family, their employment and their lives in general. (p.57)

So while exemption meant that there was reduced risk of children being removed under Stolen Generations policies, and it offered access to public education, housing, employment, and eligibility for Commonwealth pensions, the government still held immense power over their lives.  Exemption did not ever confer the same rights as other citizens had, and it did not protect their holders from discrimination and exclusion, especially in country towns.

 In a book replete with confronting realisations — particularly quotations from people volunteering to share their lived experience of this ‘passport’ to rights in their own country — the chapter by Wiradjuri woman Ash Francisco about the emergence of the exemption system in NSW during the 1940s reveals its repellent history.  It emerges that the legislation arose to save the state money.  Exempted people participating in the workforce reduced the budget for the Aborigines Welfare Board.  Exemption policies enabled it to offload the responsibility of some of its financial burdens, because as the Hon WE Dickson put it during the second reading of the Bill:

Certificates will be issued by the Aborigines Welfare Board, after full and careful inquiry, to ascertain that the applicant is good-living, respectable, hard-working and intelligent.  After the certificate has been issued the aborigines [sic] concerned will be expected to disassociate themselves from the benefits and relief conferred by the board, and at the same time make an honest attempt to establish themselves in the general community under the conditions that apply to white people. (p.45)

The chapter goes on then to explain that, as exempted people were required to live away from their community, the Welfare Board was thus able to sell off land and assets that had been Board-controlled reserves or stations but were no longer needed.  This freed up more land for private use, but it isn’t clear how this money was used, although the Board was vocal about its stretched finances.  Some unprofitable assets were deliberately allowed to fall into disrepair, selecting those stations or areas where they could exercise the most control and gain the biggest return, while letting stations that were less influential fall into disrepair.  The cynicism of this, dressed up in terms of ‘budget responsibility’, is nauseating.

And although there was no official exemption legislation in Victoria, individuals took action to avoid being caught by other policies that separated families. The chapter quotes letters seeking informal channels of exemption from policies that required children to be sent away to work once they reached the age of fourteen. Families also engaged in border-hopping to where state rules were different, and they ‘tweaked’ information for school registrations to conceal their whereabouts.

It’s important to understand that there was agency involved in Indigenous people choosing to apply for exemption, but that they should never have needed to do it.

I read this book for First Nations Reading Week 2022.

This post was written on the traditional land of the Ngaruk-Willam clan, one of the six clans of the Bunerong (Boonwurrung or Boon wurrung) saltwater people of the Kulin nation.

Editors: Lucinda Aberdeen and Jennifer Jones
Contributors: Ash Francisco, a Wiradjuri woman; Beth Marsden; Jessica Horton; Jennifer Jones; John Maynard, a Worimi man; Aunty Judy Wickes, a Kalkadoon and Wakka Wakka woman; Katherine Ellinghaus; Karen Hughes; Aunty Kella Robinson, a Wemba Wemba woman; Leonie Stevens; Lucinda Aberdeen;
Title: Black, White and Exempt, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Lives under Exemption
Publisher: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2021
ISBN: 9781925302332, pbk., 211 pages including Notes, References and an Index.
Source: Personal library, purchased from the AIATSIS Bookshop


Responses

  1. Thanks for the link. Not an easy read, but an important one.

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  2. This fills me with grief and shame. The more I learn about the things done to the members of our First Nations, the more amazed I am at their generosity of spirit and preparedness to work with us, as demonstrated by the Uluru Statement – which of course was rejected out of hand. I hope that the Albanese government will indeed ensure that this latest shameful action is reversed and we can move on together.

    Like

    • Hello Eleanor, I agree. I feel a bit more hopeful too, though the difficulties in getting bi-partisan support remain. But by reading and listening and learning, ordinary people can outpace the naysayers and make change happen despite them.
      And that would be a wonderful thing!

      Like

  3. White Australians and all white descendants in countries that colonised need to learn the horrible history in my view. Yes it is painful, uncomfortable and shocking but we need to stop the lies, bring out the hidden narratives. Freedom is not the word to use for denying people their language, their culture, their identity. What else is there but to lie or bury oneself in a void? It is a shame, a stain on the sickening state of Empire.

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    • We agree, Saige, and this First Nations Reading Week and the First Nations Reading List that comes from it is my small contribution to that task. But we are dependent on First Nations people themselves to tell these stories, and it is an exhausting task for them. This book showed me, like no other book has (and I have read a lot of First Nations authored books) that revisiting these painful events is deeply distressing for people affected by these racist policies. IMO the best way for us to show our gratitude for their courage is to advocate for change, in whatever ways we can do that.

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  4. My goodness, of course I had no idea about this, how absolutely shocking. It reminds me on a much worse level of the way Greek and Japanese, etc. people in America had to resort to legal battles to prove that they were “White” (I read about that in a couple of books including Robin diAngelo’s “White Privilege”, I also found this interesting blog post which covers Greek Australians, as well https://neoskosmos.com/en/2016/10/31/dialogue/opinion/when-did-greeks-become-white/ ). But none of that as bad as this, of course. And all to save money: of course!

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    • That *is* an interesting post. A good example of the harm done by identity politics…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I confess that until read Tony Birch’s book The White Girl a couple of years ago, I too had not heard about Exemption.

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    • That shows the value of fiction, I think. But until I read this one, I hadn’t understood just how sensitive an issue it still is for some families, and perhaps that’s why we didn’t know anything much about it.

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      • Now that it has been pointed out to me/us, it’s understandable. Rather like the latest census data showing a 25% increase in people identifying as Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander, which seems to indicate more people being proud to claim their Aboriginal heritage plus also being less fearful of the consequences of doing so.

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  6. Just watched Justin Hodges Who Do You Think You Are episode and exemption loomed large at one point. Worth a view. (I have had to calm an outraged wife down after watching this and having read out loud Lisa’s review, not that I blame her)

    Like

    • *gulp* Is she outraged with me, or about what I wrote?

      Like

      • No not you lol. The fact that exemption existed.

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