Reclaiming my birth name as a Black woman made me a stronger executive leader—after 20-plus years as ‘Shauna’ (2024)

LaShuna McBride is chief of staff at Committee for Children, a nonprofit supporting children’s safety and well-being through social-emotional learning and development.

Eleven years, three months, and 20 days ago my life’s story was forever altered by a single seismic event—my beloved mother departed this world. In an instant, everything changed. In many ways, it’s the day in which one arc of my narrative ended and another began. After more than a decade of reflecting on her invaluable teachings, I’ve finally internalized my mom’s most crucial lesson: to be unapologetically me.

As a Black woman, I know firsthand that owning your narrative isn’t always easy. I’ve had to navigate prejudice while keeping my head held high. The rules have often been different for me. Be vocal, but not loud, some have told me. Be opinionated, but not bossy, others have said. Be Black, but not too Black, some suggested. Each of those ill-advised recommendations is problematic for so many reasons, but the last one is especially sticky. I love being Black! I love the multifaceted magic that you find within the Black community. We are far from monolithic. We are magnificently resilient humans filled with so many hopes, dreams, joys, sorrows, challenges, and triumphs. We’ve been through so much, and we continue to experience so much. However, when rooted in our individually unique Blackness, we are home. And I am proud to be part of a community with such cultural richness.

‘Code-switching’ perils

However, over the years there have been times when this part of my identity has not been understood or well-received. According to LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company’s 2023 Women In the Workplace Report, “Black women are three times more likely than white women and men to have to code-switch.” This practice of altering one’s speech, behavior, and appearance to conform to the dominant culture is not just a matter of professional decorum—it’s a sacrifice of authenticity that punctuates a persistent struggle for true liberation in our daily lives.

As we approach Juneteenth, a day that commemorates when the last enslaved Black Americans in Texas were informed of their freedom, over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the concept of liberation remains critically important. It’s evolved beyond the physical chains of enslavement to include the subtler, yet equally oppressive, social expectations and norms that continue to bind Black individuals. One example is the pressure to code-switch in professional and social environments. Code-switching can be a significant barrier to genuine self-expression and freedom. And it’s not just about changing one’s language or behavior. Sometimes, it’s changing your name to fit into the dominant culture. I’m a prime example.

Early in my career, it became painfully clear that my given name, LaShuna, often led others to jump to conclusions about who I am—a realization that was quite disheartening. This led me to shorten my name to Shauna in hopes of experiencing less bias professionally. I knew Shauna was a more palatable option. I also knew that wasn’t the name my mother gifted me. My mother, Darlene, was five-foot-two, fierce, and fabulous. She was—and still is—the biggest influence in my life. When I think about my experiences as a mom, a woman, and a working professional, I always come back to my mother’s deepest hope for me: to not be afraid to be myself. She often reminded me to use my voice to ensure I, and those who look like me, are fully seen and heard. “Remember who you are,” she would always tell me. Throughout her journey, my mom was very intentional about centering and amplifying the voices and needs of people on the margins. Because of her, I think deeply and critically about the way I share my story with the world and what that means for women of color in work settings.

So, after abbreviating my name professionally for decades, I decided to follow the advice my mother gave me so long ago and reclaim my true name in the workplace. LaShuna is a representation of where I come from and who I am, a symbol of my Blackness. This full-circle moment feels incredibly liberating, and I want this type of emancipation for others within the community.

Showing up as yourself

My mother taught me that every person has many layers that make them who they are. These layers should be celebrated and honored, not hidden or suppressed. Reestablishing my true name at this stage of my career has served as an exciting reminder that I am multi-dimensional and constantly evolving. Regardless of how others may perceive me based on my identity characteristics, I have the power to define who I am.

The way you communicate your story matters. Your self-definitions, your voice, your name—it all matters. It’s all part of your story. As a communicator, I believe that words, language, and discourse help shape our history and legacy. As a Black woman, I’ve felt the impact of representation. And as an executive at one of the leading nonprofits championing social-emotional learning, I deeply understand the importance of cultivating life skills like self-awareness, nurturing a healthy relationship with oneself, effective communication, and perspective-taking. I also recognize the responsibility I have in my leadership role. The way leaders show up in the workplace can make all the difference in creating a sense of belonging and psychological safety for teams. I’m committed to using my influence to advocate for others, build high-functioning workplace relationships, and push for work cultures where humans feel seen, heard, and valued. Why? Because liberation is on the line. And I’d hate to see anyone else wait 20-plus years to use their real name at work.

I urge all leaders to make a similar commitment. I urge others to embrace their unique stories, speak their truth, and celebrate their layers in all settings. But especially, for Black women: This message is for you. Society sometimes tells us that we’re “too much,” “too emotional,” “too confident,” “too strong.” But my mother taught me that being a Black woman is to be many magical, multi-faceted things that are all valuable and worth celebrating. And as a mother, I want my daughter to feel the same way. Let’s inspire the next generation to embrace their magic too, so that our uniqueness can have a lasting effect on generations to come. So, take up space with your magic. Let’s not limit our identities to what others may perceive of our Blackness or womanhood. Let’s live our best lives in all the ways that make us whole—from wearing the hairstyles that we want to using our full names even if they may be hard for people to pronounce. Because showing up as your truest self is unequivocally a liberating act of bravery, and key to leading—and living—with integrity and achieving a very special kind of success. I know my mother would agree.

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The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs ofFortune.

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Reclaiming my birth name as a Black woman made me a stronger executive leader—after 20-plus years as ‘Shauna’ (2024)

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