Untold stories of Aboriginal exemption

La Trobe academics Dr Lucinda Aberdeen and Associate Professor Jennifer Jones are the editors of a new book titled Black, White and Exempt: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives under exemption which presents the untold story of Aboriginal exemption, a policy imposed by state governments on Aboriginal people during the twentieth century.

Exemption certificates promised Aboriginal people access to the benefits of Australian citizenship that Aboriginal status denied them; including access to education, health services, housing and employment. In exchange, exempted individuals were required to relinquish their language, identity and ties to kin.

Black, White and Exempt is an edited collection of eleven histories breaking new ground by introducing the reader to exemption practices, exploring the sensitive nature of this history in Australia and its legacy of intergenerational loss and trauma.

Editors Dr Lucinda Aberdeen and  Associate Professor Jennifer Jones were inspired by archival research, family stories and lived experience that were first presented at the Rethinking and Researching 20th Century Aboriginal Exemption in Australia symposium, held at La Trobe's Shepparton campus in 2018.

This research has been driven by Aboriginal researchers and elders, Aunty Kella Robinson and Aunty Judi Wickes whose own family stories of exemption motivates them to draw this little-understood phenomena to the attention of the general public and Aboriginal communities.

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Studies CEO, Craig Ritchie said: ”This policy required Aboriginal peoples to sacrifice ties to kin, identity and language, in order to have access to education, health services, housing and employment for their families.

The traumatic and complex impacts of this policy across generations is little understood and I applaud Aboriginal Studies Press for being bold in bringing this story to the fore.”

Contributor Judi Wickes’ grandparents chose to be exempt, and the impacts are still felt by Aunty Judi and her family.

"How sad I am that the knowledge which could have passed down through my family to our current generation is lost," Aunty Judi said.

"It is a dreadful shame that both my grandparents took that knowledge to their graves. It is the silencing of the past and the invisibility of it all that I find most hurtful, especially when others can talk about their language, customs, land and culture."

Black, White and Exempt also celebrates the resilience of individuals and families who sought exemption certificates to protect their families and increase opportunities for them. It also charts the experiences and impacts of exemptees who struggled to advance Aboriginal rights, resist state control and abolish the exemption system.

Mr Ritchie said: "AIATSIS is committed to providing a modern forum for truth telling and sharing the stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Aboriginal Studies Press, and this book in particular show our commitment to doing just that.”

Black, White and Exempt, is a release by Aboriginal Studies Press (ASP), AIATSIS’ publishing arm.

CAPTION: Daisy Smith with her daughter Valma, circa 1950. Photograph courtesy of Aunty Judi Wickes.

Media Contact: Kathryn Powley | k.powley@latrobe.edu.eu | 0456 764 371