I wasn't trying to suggest that the person was seen as a thing. I was trying to say that Zwarte Piet exists as a concept. In the way flying reindeer are "a thing".
"culture isn't just a costume you can put on for the day" therein lays the problem. Zwarte piet, to an 8 year old Dutch kid in the 80s, very much was a costume you put on. The way dad wore a suit and tie to work. We didn't see it as a imitation of a person of African descent. None of my friends ever said "hey, Zwarte Piet has a black skin tone". And that was not because we were "woke" or anything. There was casual racism everywhere, especially against Surinamers and Turks. If anyone thought this was supposed to be "a people" I would certainly have heard about it. Because Sint and Piet was discussed at length.
Again, I am not trying to defend the custom. But the author of this piece was wondering about Dutch kids. And having been one, I felt like I could provide a little bit of insight.