Black, White and Exempt: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives under Exemption by Lucinda Aberdeen (Editor), Jennifer A. Jones (Editor)

‘For a great part of the twentieth century one could argue that Aboriginal people operated in a police state.’

What was ‘exemption’ and what did it mean? Before I read this book, I really did not have a clear idea of what ‘exemption’ meant. From the back cover of this book:

‘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.

Contributions by Lucinda Aberdeen, Katherine Ellinghaus, Ashlen Francisco, Jessica Horton, Karen Hughes, Jennifer Jones, Beth Marsden, John Maynard, Kella Robinson, Leonie Stevens and Judi Wickes.’

I opened the book and started reading. I kept reading, through feelings of outrage and sadness at the processes and consequences of a system designed to have people deny their indigeneity, lose connection to their family and community on the basis that ‘exemption’ was ‘good’.


‘Exemption allowed people to apply for official release from the legal provisions which constrained the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.’

Yes, people could apply. ‘Exemption’ might not always be granted, and it could be withdrawn. And this process existed in various states of Australia until the 1960s?

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.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith